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Is paying for ‘ecosystem services’ good for sustainable development?

Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans gain from the natural world, and are defined into 3 general categories: provisioning services supply us with a commodity (water, timber), regulating services help maintain homeostasis in our environment (air regulation), and cultural services offer an opportunity to expand our experiences, with nature tourism and education (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs , 2013).
Payment for these natural resources is supported by the basic idea that those who provide ecosystem services (ES), are no different to those providing a man-made service, and should be paid for doing so. PES puts a price on previously free services, and therefore, takes them out of public ownership, becoming a commodity to be traded (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs , 2013).
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment by the United Nations Environment Program calculated that “in 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel” (UNEP, 2005 ). This has led to the degradation of many essential ES, such as water regulation and flood control, which may prevent the success of the Millennium Development Goals (World Health Organization, 2008).

The logic behind PES is that, if services are organised as a transaction, rather than an unregulated free-for-all on unowned property, then their usage can be distributed and utilized to its fullest potential. Furthermore, PES could incentivise stewardship (the protection and restoration of natural resources),as a public scheme could use government funds to pay companies to restore ecosystems degraded by their activities (Bullock, 2011).

An example of this type of scheme in action would be the recent change in approach to agricultural development. Agriculture both provides and receives ecosystem services (Swinton, 2007), and is no longer seen as an isolated industry, but more as an interlinked process.  Crops in individual fields are dependent on services provided by nearby ecosystems, and those crops provide services to other species (habitat, food), as well as humans (food, fibre, fuel). Furthermore, agriculture, if managed correctly, has the ability to regulate the populations of pollinators, pests, wildlife, “as well as fluctuations in levels of soil loss, water quality and supply, and greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration” (Swinton, 2007).
Simply put, agriculture influences habitat quality therefore influencing the biodiversity, and biodiversity affects the success of crop yields, which impacts human success. Understanding these connections and the ecology of rangelands is essential to the success of sustainable development, and finding a solution to the growing food demand, while reducing the agricultural sectors impact on other ecosystem services.
PES has been a solution to these questions in many cases, where the provider of the ecosystem service is the seller and the beneficiary of the ecosystem service is the buyer (Ottaviani, 2011 ), and the buyer is often a government working in the interests of the public. For instance, a public scheme could use tax funds to pay land/resource managers to deliver ecosystem services, such as maintaining a good level of deep-rooted trees on farmland, to prevent soil degradation and increased flood risk; or to cultivate a biodiverse wildflower population on their land, to encourage pollinators natural activities, which in turn will increase crop yield and benefit the public, as well as the ecosystem.

In principle, the exchange of money for ecosystem service has many benefits, but it also comes with a variety of risks. An example would be that the inclusion of a capitalist system (which naturally leans towards exploitation and inequality) into a natural system, may not be a perfect match (Kinzig, 2011). This could lead to the rise of exploitation of some communities, as their ability to gain monetary access to these services could be lesser, meaning that some groups have access to a higher measure of services than others. In other market scenarios, such as for luxury goods, this is not vital, but fundamental services provided by nature are seen as more of a ‘right’; which would imply that they should be equally shared among all people, without the influence of money. This issue is particularly intense in the issue of water supply, which many people think should not be entangled with an economic market.
However, these concerns can be combatted by transparency and fairness in the policy writing of PES, as all services must be voluntary and clearly defined.

In summary, paying for ecosystem services is a good method to begin the management of human usage of natural resources. Although it is just one approach to fight environmental degradation, a market-based mechanism such as PES has great potential to have huge effects, due to the importance of profit, as a driving force in the western world, which is where changes to our relationship with the environment needs to be remodelled the most.


Bullock, J., 2011. Restoration of ecosystem services and biodiversity: conflicts and opportunities, s.l.: Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 26, Issue 10.

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs , 2013. Payments for Ecosystem Services: best practice guide, s.l.: s.n.

Kinzig, A. P., 2011. Paying for Ecosystem Services—Promise and Peril, s.l.: Science, Vol 334, Issue 6056.

Ottaviani, D., 2011 . The role of PES in Agriculture , s.l.: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Swinton, S., 2007. Ecosystem services and agriculture: Cultivating agricultural ecosystems for diverse benefits, s.l.: Ecological Economics, Volume 64, Issue 2 .

UNEP, 2005 . Milliennium Ecosystem Assessment, s.l.: s.n.

World Health Organization, 2008. Millennium development goals, s.l.: New Delhi : WHO Regional Office for South-East Asia. .


Published by amyandkatherine

We are two friends of 12 years, trying to start careers in journalism.

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