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Ecosystems services – what nature gives us

Nature provides us with the very essentials of life. It gives us clean air and water; enables us to produce and gather food, fuel and raw materials from the land and sea; regulates our climate; stems flood waters and it filters pollution. It also gives us personal benefits from enjoying it that increase our health and happiness.

We already have ways to make sure individual aspects of our natural environment are protected from direct harm. However, as a society we are putting more and more pressure on our environment, which is damaging the way all the individual bits of it work together in systems.  Apart from the things we can sell (e.g. food and timber), the value of our natural systems to society is largely hidden. This means they are often not valued in decision making and are left vulnerable to loss and degradation.

This is a problem because by damaging these ‘ecosystems’ we are reducing the natural environment’s ability to give us the valuable services that underpin our economic, social and personal well-being. Defra is helping people to protect the way the natural environment works as a system by promoting an ‘ecosystems approach’ in decision making.

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Key facts and figures

There are three major studies that have produced or are producing data on ecosystem services and their value to society:

Recent estimates of the value of the natural environment to society include:

Business and the economy
  • An estimate of the total value of natural resources to the UK economy was over £15bn in 2007
Health and wellbeing
  • Recent estimates suggest that air pollution reduces life expectancy over the UK population by an average of 6 months at a social cost of £15 billion per year
  • If every household in England were provided with good access to quality green space it could save an estimated £2.1 billion per year in health care costs
Places and transport
  • On the Humber, increased flood protection worth over £400k per year has been achieved by converting 170 hectares of land to intertidal habitats
Climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • The annual value of carbon sequestration from UK woodlands is estimated to be £770 million
  • 580 million tonnes of carbon are stored in England’s peat soils
International development
  • Globally, more than 1.3 billion people depend on fisheries, forests and agriculture for employment and more than 1 billion rely on fish as their sole source of protein

What is an ecosystems approach?

An ecosystems approach provides a framework for looking at whole ecosystems in decision making, and for valuing the ecosystem services they provide, to ensure that society can maintain a healthy and resilient natural environment now and for future generations.

What are ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services can be defined as services provided by the natural environment that benefit people.

There is no single, agreed method of categorising all ecosystem services, but the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment framework is widely accepted and is seen as a useful starting point. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identifies four broad categories of ecosystem service which all lead to different benefits:

  • Provisioning services: we obtain products from ecosystems such as food, fuel, textiles and medicines
  • Regulating services: we benefit from the results of ecosystem processes such as water purification, air quality maintenance and climate regulation
  • Cultural services: we gain non-material benefits from our interaction with the natural environment such as education and well-being
  • Supporting services: functions that are necessary for the production of other ecosystem services from which we benefit, such as soil formation and nutrient cycling

Examples of the benefits that these services provide include:

  • resources for basic survival, such as clean air and water
  • a contribution to good physical and mental health, for example through access to urban and rural green spaces, and genetic resources for medicines
  • protection from hazards, through the regulation of our climate and water cycle
  • support for a strong and healthy economy, through raw materials for industry and agriculture, or through tourism and recreation
  • social, cultural and educational benefits, and wellbeing and inspiration from interaction with nature
  • hidden benefits that enable other benefits to be produced, such as pollination

How can I apply an ecosystem approach?

Guidance on applying an ecosystem approach is available.

People across the country and around the world are increasingly applying an ecosystem approach. Case-studies about their experiences can provide useful practical examples of how the theory can be put into practice on the ground.

There is a growing body of evidence and research on the importance of the natural environment to society and using an ecosystems approach.

Key publications and documents

Page last modified: 18 October 2010