The Best of Both Worlds:
Planning for Ecosystem Win-Wins

By Claire Asher, on 16 November 2014

The normal and healthy function of ecosystems is not only of importance in conserving biodiversity, it is of utmost importance for human wellbeing as well. Ecosystems provide us with a wealth of valuable ecosystem services from food to clean water and fuel, without which our societies would crumble. However it is rare that only a single person, group or organisation places demands on any given ecosystem service, and in many cases multiple stakeholders compete over the use of the natural world. In these cases, although trade-offs are common, win-win scenarios are also possible, and recent research by GEE academics investigates how we can achieve these win-wins in our use of ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services depend upon the ecological communities that produce them and are rarely the product of a single species in isolation. Instead, ecosystem services are provided by the complex interaction of multiple species within a particular ecological community. A great deal of research interest in recent years has focussed on ensuring we maintain ecosystem services into the long term, however pressure on ecosystem services worldwide lis likely to increase as human demands on natural resources soars. Ecosystem services are influenced by complex ecosystem feedback relationships and food-web dynamics that are still relatively poorly understood, and increased pressures on ecosystems may lead to unexpected consequences. Although economical signals respond rapidly to global and national changes, ecosystem services are thought to lag behind, often by decades, making it difficult to predict and fully understand how our actions are influences the availability of crucial services in the future.

Trade-offs in the use of ecosystem services occur when the provision of one ecosystem service is reduced by increased use of another, or when one stakeholder takes more of an ES at the expense of other stakeholders. However, this needn’t be the case – in some scenarios it is possible to achieve win-win outcomes, preserving ecosystem services and providing stakeholders the resources they need. Although attractive, win-win scenarios may be difficult to achieve without carefully planned interventions, and recent research from GEE indicates they are not as common as we might like.

In a comprehensive meta-analaysis of ecosystem services case studies from 2000 to 2013, GEE academics Prof Georgina Mace and Dr Caroline Howe show that trade-offs are far more common than win-win scenarios. Across 92 studies covering over 200 recorded trade-offs or synergies in the use of ecosystem services, trade-offs were three times more common than win-wins. The authors identified a number of factors that tended to lead to trade-offs rather than synergies. In particular, if one or more of the stakeholders has a private interest in the natural resources available, trade-offs are much more likely – 81% of cases like this resulted in tradeoffs. Furthermore, trade-offs were far more common when the ecosystem services in question were ‘provisioning’ in nature – products we directly harvest from nature such as food, timber, water, minerals and energy. Win-wins are more common when regulating (e.g. nutrient cycling and water purification) or cultural (e.g. spiritual or historical value) ecosystem services are in question. In the case of trade-offs, there were also factors that predicted who the ‘winners’ would be – winners were three times more likely to hold private interest in the natural resource in question, and tended to be wealthier than loosing stakeholders. Overall, there was no generalisable context that predicted win-win scenarios, suggesting that although trade-off indicators may be useful in strategic planning, the outcome of our use of ecosystem services is not inevitable, and win-wins are possible.

They also identified major gaps in the literature that need to be addressed if we are to gain a better understanding of how win-win scenarios may be possible in human use of ecosystems. In particular, case studies are currently only available for a relatively limited geographic distribution, and tend to focus of provisioning services. Thus, the lower occurrence of trade-offs for regulating and cultural ecosystem services may be in part a reflection of a paucity of data on these type of services. Finally, relatively few studies have attempted to explore the link between trade-offs and synergies in ecosystem services and the ultimate effect on human well-being.

Understanding how and why trade-offs and synergies occurs in our use of ecosystem services will be valuable in planning for win-win scenarios from the outset. Planning of this kind may be necessary if we are to achieve and maintain balance in our use of the natural world in the future.

Original Article:


This research was made possible by support from the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and the UK Department for International Development (ERC)

The Delicate Balance of Effect and Response

By Claire Asher, on 18 February 2014

We may not always be aware of it, but many wild plants, animals, fungi and even bacteria, provide crucial services to us which keep the ecosystems of Earth functioning. Environmental changes caused by human activities are now threatening many species, and those that cannot withstand these changes may be lost forever, potentially taking the services they provide away. New research from GEE and collaborators worldwide aims to improve our understanding of how the traits and evolutionary histories of species influence their ability to provide essential ecosystem services, and to persist in the face of ongoing environmental change.

The diverse array of species we share planet Earth with, and the complex ecosystems they form, are crucial to our continued survival and well being. Species and ecosystems provide a huge number of ‘ecosystem services’ – functions such as nutrient cycling, waste decomposition, pollination and food, to name just a few, which humans rely on. However, many species are now under threat from human activities like deforestation, hunting and pollution. Scientists are working to understand how species and ecosystems will respond to our continued activities in the future, and particularly how this may effect the vital ecosystem services upon which we rely. Recent research by GEE’s Prof. Georgina Mace, in collaboration with researchers from Cordoba National Univerity, Imperial College London, VU University, Yale University and CSIC, has attempted to develop a new framework for risk assessing the effect of human activities on ecosystem services.

The framework considers two key aspects of species: their effect on the generation of a specific ecosystem service (e.g. seed dispersal), and their response to specific environmental pressures (e.g. drought). Both the effect of a species and the response of a species are underpinned by its traits, and each is influenced not by a single trait but a combination of traits. The response of a species will determine it’s ability to survive and flourish through future environmental changes and to continue to provide it’s ecosystem effects. However, only a species’ response is the subject of natural selection, via changes to the underlying traits; the effect of a species is merely a biproduct of traits selected for their influence on survival. In this way, the aspects of a species’ biology upon which we rely are only indirectly influenced by natural selection, and will only be maintained if the traits that generate them are beneficial through the environmental changes we cause. The framework developed by GEE researchers and collaborators considers how the response of species to envinmental stressors interacts with the effect of that species on key ecosystem services, and whether species with a large effect are more or less vulnerable to environmental change.

A third key factor influencing the sensitivity of ecosystem system services is the evolutionary relationships between species providing them. Closely related species often share similar traits, which may or may not result in them having similar effects and responses. If this is the case, then ecosystems in which a particular service is provided by a group of closely related species may be more vulnerable to environmental change, since those species may well share similar responses, and be sensitive to similar environmental pressures. Although many species’ traits are known to be similar amongst related species, because effects and responses are each the result of a combination of traits, it is not known whether this relationship is also common for these variables.

The new framework developed by GEE’s Professor Georgina Mace and collaborators attempts to address this by incorporating evolutionary relationships (phylogeny) into their response-effect model, and applying this model to 5 case studies. The case studies cover 5 species assemblages including a total of 480 species in Europe, Central America and Africa, for which response and effects could be estimated based on past studies of species’ traits and vulnerabilities. The case studies tended to show a strong relationship between phylogeny and both species’ effects on ecosystem services and their responses to environmental stressors. This indeed suggests that ecosystem services that rely upon closely related groups of species may be most at risk from environmental change. Cases where effects and responses are negatively correlated, so that the most influential species in terms of a given ecosystem service are also the most vulnerable to environmental stress, are most vulnerable to loss of that ecosystem service through human activities. Whether this type of relationship is common in nature remains to be investigated by future studies, and this framework provides a powerful basis with which to do so.

Our relentless demands on the natural world are inevitably leading to new pressures and stresses on natural populations, and it is of great concern that these pressures may negatively impact on the vital ecosystem services that we rely upon, often without even realising it. Ecosystem services provide us with food and fresh water, decompose our waste, recycle nutrients and remove harmful toxins. Without them our continued survival and well being would be seriously compromised. Scientists are still working to understand how species’ traits influence their ability to provide ecosystem services and their resilience to ongoing environmmental change. A new framework developed in collaboration between universities in the UK, Spain, Argentina, the USA and the Netherlands is beginning to shed light on the interaction between species’ traits, their effect on ecosystem services and their response to environmental change, and how these factors are influenced by evolutionary relationships between species. This framework offers a powerful new view of how the traits of species within an ecosystem translate into the ecosystem services upon which we are so reliant, and future research building upon this framework promises to improve our understanding of ecosystem services and environmental change.

Original Article:

() Ecology and Evolution

This research was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Leverhulme Trust, and the US National Science Foundation

Ecosystem Services and Agriculture – An Integrated Approach to UK Policy

By Claire Asher, on 9 August 2013

Nearly three-quarters of the UK is agricultural land and decisions about land use fundamentally effect all of us through their effects on the cost and availability of food, pollution and climate change, and the availability of land for other purposes such as recreation and housing. Traditional strategies for determining land-use are based on the market value of the produce, ignoring the value of ecosystem services and variability of the environment across the UK. However, ignoring these factors will lead to economic losses by 2060, recent research in collaboration between the University of East Anglia and University College London reveals. Future policy must account for the total value of land, and apply policy in a non-uniform way in order to maximise the long-term benefits of our land-use decisions.

The UK is one of the most altered ecosystems in the World, and its land is dominated by agriculture. Nearly 75% of UK soil (that’s 18.4 million hectares!) is agricultural. Decisions about how to use our land have traditionally used a one-size-fits-all, market-driven approach, but recent research in UCL’s GEE and UEA’s CSERGE indicates this might not be the best approach for maximising long-term benefits.

Using data from a variety of sources, including the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which generated a fine-scale dataset of land-use records in the UK covering a 40-year period, UCL’s Professor Georgina Mace, Professor Ian Bateman and collegues at UEA modelled the future of UK land-use, considering the heterogeneous value of whole ecosystems under different climate change and policy scenarios. The models included environmental variables (soil type, slope, temperature and rainfall), policy variables (subsidies, tax and constraints), market forces and technological advances, under a range of climate scenarios until 2060. Considering purely the market value of produce, a policy of weak environmental regulation was favoured, but this was not the case when the value of ecosystem services such as reduced green-house gas emissions and recreational land-use were considered. For the UK as a whole, the greatest net gains were achieved under stricter environmental regulation. In particular the ‘nature at work’ policy scenario, which considers whole ecosystem function and prioritises recreational green-space in urban environments, produced the largest net gains.

However, the pattern of gains and losses in the monetary value of land varied across the country, with weaker environmental regulation favoured in north west Britain. They therefore also considered models which allowed policy to vary across the UK. Selecting a policy scenario for each area based on both market value and ecosystem services yielded net benefits of 20% across the UK, with much larger gains in highly populated areas. Converting relatively small areas of land towards recreation and green-space was of extremely high value in urban areas, at a relatively small cost to agriculture.

One interesting finding was that applying conservation priorities came at minimal cost. As well as investigating ecosystem variables with a measurable market value (e.g. green house gas emissions), they also considered more abstract factors such as biodiversity. Imposing restrictions which minimised biodiversity loss rarely influenced the best policy scenario, and resulted in only minor reductions in economic gains. This suggests that with an integrated approach to policy-making, we can achieve conservation priorities with minimal impact to our economic prosperity.

Overall, the best strategy for the future of UK land-use will be an approach that considers the total value of land, rather than just the market value of agricultural produce, and one that considers different regions separately based on environmental characteristics such as soil type, temperature and rainfall. However, these types of changes may be difficult to implement; the most beneficial land-use strategy may not be privately beneficial for the land manager, and geographically variable policy is more administratively complex. The authors suggest that reform in the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would improve the effectiveness of land-use policy. Currently, CAP pays more than £3 billion a year in subsidies to UK farmers, with little consideration to environmental performance. Switching to a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) system that rewards farmers for a variety of ecosystem services could allow policy-makers to achieve beneficial land-use change in the long term.

The fate of the UK landscape has traditionally been directed by the agricultural market, without attention to the value of ecosystem services. However, in a paper last month in Science, researchers at the University of East Anglia and University College London presented computer simulations based upon extensive data for the UK, which indicated this policy will not make the best use of our land over the coming decades. Instead, a system of increased environmental regulation tailored specifically to different geographical areas would maximise the monetary value of our land, and enacting conservation priorities within this framework comes at minimal cost.

Original Article:

Images © Copyright Pam Brophy and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Part of the Geograph Project

This research was made possible by funding from the UK-NEA and its Follow-On program, which are together supported by UK Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Social and Environmental Economic Research (SEER) project.