Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA)

Valuation of ecosystem services and strategic environmental assessment

The concept of ecosystem services has received significant attention since the appearance of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). Ecosystem services are the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. The MA has subdivided ecosystem services into four categories: provisioning such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits. Although not described as such by the MA, other categories have been recognised in scientific literature such as “carrying” services (providing a substrate or backdrop for human activities) or “preserving” services, which includes guarding against uncertainty through the maintenance of diversity.

Knowledge institutes are creating a growing body of knowledge on the concept of ecosystem services. Environmental economics have produced an impressive collection of valuation studies (over 3000 have been reported by Environmental Valuation Reference Inventory (EVRI)2, applying valuation techniques with ever increasing sophistication and reliability. Gradually the approach is being applied in practice, to support decision making and to guide development into a more sustainable direction. Yet, cases where economic valuation of ecosystem services has actually contributed to or exerted influence on strategic decision making on real-life policies, programmes or plans remain scarce.

So far, the SEA community has even less used the opportunities provided by ecosystem services as a means to translate environment into societal benefits, and link these to stakeholders. Even though we have seriously looked for good SEA case material, only few SEA cases were available with a clear recognition of ecosystem services. In other words, it is extremely difficult to find good practical evidence that application of the ecosystem services concepts “works” in the context of SEA. Yet, from personal experience, in a limited number of cases we know it does work well in SEA.

Therefore we have documented ten influential cases where the recognition, quantification and valuation of ecosystem services have significantly contributed to strategic decision making. Ten additional cases have been analysed in less detail and provide additional support to the main messages in this document. In all cases, the use of the ecosystem services concept supported decision making by providing better information on the consequences of new policies or planned developments. Valuation of ecosystem services, in one form or another, thus resulted in major policy changes or decision making on strategic plans or investment programmes. In several cases SEA or a process similar to SEA was followed, providing evidence that valuation of ecosystem services is an important tool to enhance the influence of SEA on decision making. The SEA community is therefore urged to make better use of this tool. Conversely, the academic community is urged to make better use of SEA as the vehicle to convey the messages coming from valuation studies. SEA has a legal basis in over 60 countries now and provides better guarantees that valuation studies are taken into account in decision-making processes.

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