SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  15 March 2012
Volume 13 Issue 3

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Summary of the 5th SETAC Europe Special Science Symposium: Ecosystem Services-From Policy to Practice

G. Allen Burton, University of Michigan and Joke van Wensem, Soil Protection Technical Committee, NL

The Ecosystem Services (ES) concept is gaining increasing prominence in environmental policy making. A number of institutions, regulators and policy makers have begun to adopt the concept, yet the science and valuation approaches needed to put policy into practice are still in their infancy. The EU has a goal of halting biodiversity loss and degradation of ES with concerted restoration progress by 2020. Sustainable management of these services includes both their restoration and trade-offs between ecosystem services, as well as an understanding of the spatial and temporal scale consequences between service provision and utilization in the long term. There must be a scientific and valuation understanding of the linkage between local-scale actions and those at the landscape, national or global scale, much as there is in Life Cycle Assessments.

The symposium provided an excellent overview of the ES concept and its applications with 16 oral presentations and 17 posters. There were over 60 attendees representing academia, business, government and nonprofit organizations from 17 countries, of which approximately half were non-SETAC members. Co-chairs Joke van Wensem and Lorraine Maltby were assisted by a steering committee of Eamonn Farrelly, Udo Hommen, Katja Knauer, Thomas Koellner and Paulo Sousa.

Below we have summarized the key issues and questions identified in the organized discussion periods following each session:

The ES Concept

  • Over-arching questions: Is it primarily a science topic? What is it all about? Is it a fashion or will it stay? Will it be implemented in policies?
  • ES concept (though not always called ES) has been around for more than 25 years.
  • ES is an anthropogenic topic and addresses the question whether people belong to ecosystems or consider ourselves to be outside of ecosystems.
  • ES is a societal issue: What do we want from ecosystems now and in the future?
  • Is it about what society wants or rather what it needs? The markets seem to decide. ES are, by definition, benefits people use from ecosystems; if ‘use’ stands for ‘needs’ (it takes an effort to use the benefits) then it is about needs. It is a distribution issue. ES may help us to influence markets and improve ES provision that is not part of the traditional market. ES may regulate or complement markets.
  • Science is important in managing ecosystems and contributes to the ES framework.
  • Society cares more about ES than ecosystems. Intrinsic value matters and varies widely between groups.
  • ES provide a language to bring science to policy makers.
  • ES provide a good framework but will require time to bring it forward into policy making. The fact that politicians embrace the concept should be seen as an opportunity.
  • We shouldn’t worry too much about uncertainty as the majority of the comparisons and values will be relative and qualitative.
  • We need case studies as roadmaps and several are available at the "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity" (TEEB) website:
  • ES provides an integrative concept that requires interdisciplinary and sector collaborations, so we can learn from each other.
  • Most participants from business thought ES is a helpful concept for sustainable business development.

Primary Drivers and Threats for Ecosystems

  • Population growth
  • Ecological footprint


  • In Europe, ES will probably not lead to new regulation, but existing regulation may be adapted to ES. This is likely the case in North America.
  • ES provide another way of thinking/seeing natural capital and may improve policy making processes and management of natural capital. ES are relevant for implementation, not necessarily for new regulation.


  • ES may provide risk assessment schemes with more relevant test organisms and strive for mechanistic-based population models. We must link typical risk measurement endpoints (individuals) and the providers of ES (e.g., populations or groups of populations).
  • In risk assessment for pesticides we need to discuss trade offs between food provision and other ES.
  • It is most relevant to consider holistic large-scale assessments.
  • ES make decisions complicated, so can we ever be certain of our conclusions?
  • How certain do we have to be (compared, for instance, to economical models)?
  • Certainly we will improve our ability to use ES and should strive to show probabilities and consequences. We need to compare with alternatives and be transparent.
  • There is concern about aggregation is ES research, because transparency will be lost. Scaling is very important, but of course, increasing scale increases complexity.
  • We will never have enough data, but for widespread adoption and use, simple models are preferred. Simple models may, however, lead to more uncertainty.
  • Trust in science is a sensitive issue at the moment.
  • We should also strive to make the assessment process more quantitative.
  • When discussing ES standards, we need to think about the rationale behind the standards and what they are trying to protect.
  • We need to work on a common language for ES and different threats. Should we start to harmonize?


  • We are sure that management influences ecosystems and thereby ecosystem services provision.
  • Are certification schemes helpful, or should we do more?
  • Money is often the bottom line, driving decision-making, so valuation methods should be better developed and also include non-monetary valuations.
  • ES are good for managing the environment and address a multitude of threats.
  • It would help if people start to do cost-benefit analyses including ES.
  • We need to think about the influence of a multitude of individual actions on common goods. We don't have good instruments to manage this.
  • We must look at a systems level and get rid of silo thinking. We shouldn’t look at singular ES due to the inter-relationships between ES.

What's Next?
At the upcoming Berlin SETAC World Congress from 20-24 May in Berlin, Germany, there will be sessions dealing with Ecosystem Services. In addition, the SETAC Ecosystem Services Advisory Group (ES-AG) will be meeting and is open to anyone who is interested. The ES-AG creates a platform for the exchange of information and ideas for the use of the ES concept in risk assessment and management, environmental regulation and valuation of ES. The latter provides a link with economic sciences. The ES-AG exists to serve as a scientific resource for all stakeholders interested in the topic of ES and fulfills the following mission and purpose:

  • Advance overall understanding of the use of the ecosystem services concept.
  • Serve as a focal point within SETAC as a means of involving the membership in research and discussions.
  • Provide scientific support to facilitate effective regulatory decision making.
  • Provide a forum for knowledge transfer (lecture series, special science symposia).
  • Organize sessions at annual meetings and organize workshops to address scientific issues associated with ES.

An additional useful resource for ES-related literature and activities is the National Ecosystem Services Partnership (NESP) that is housed at Duke University. NESP engages both public and private individuals and organizations to enhance collaboration within the ecosystem services community and to strengthen coordination of policy and market implementation and research at the national level.


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