Our Environment provides us with an estimated US$ 125 – 145 trillion worth of ecosystem services annually. These services are the result of the dynamic interactions between diverse plants, animals, micro-organisms and their environment working together as a unit. These diverse organisms make up what we know as biodiversity. And it plays a crucial in supporting and maintaining the ecosystem services.
Firstly, what are ecosystem services? It is all the benefits provided to us humans by nature. These can be material benefits (e.g., food, water, safeguarding us against floods, etc.) and non-material benefits (e.g., recreational and spiritual benefits like going on a walk in the woods).
Given the benefits we get from ecosystem services and the role of biodiversity in providing them, it is worth taking the time to try and understand the value they provide to us.
Ecosystem Services – The Web of Life
The whole surface of Earth is a series of connected ecosystems. A pond, forest, reef or tundra – they all form a collection of different ecosystems working together.
We depend on these ecosystems everyday either directly or indirectly. For example, scientists studied a plant called Rosy Periwinkle found in secluded areas of Madagascar. This plant is significant because it produces several chemicals that are now used to treat childhood leukaemia. We would not have such medicines had the plant been extinct. This is a case of direct use from the ecosystem.
Besides this, we receive many services from our ecosystems that are indirect and perhaps not as visible to us. Think about the time you went for a hike or took a long walk in the park/woods, how did that make you feel? These recreational enjoyments we get from nature may not be immediately visible, but they provide us with immense physical, mental and spiritual experiences.
To truly understand the value we get from ecosystem services, let us take one of the many ecosystems as an example – Forest Ecosystems.
In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle
Forests make up 30% of the earth’s surface. Healthy forest ecosystems provide a wide range of services and are the backbone of many societies. They provide all the basic services, economic activities as well as many social-cultural values.
Let’s look at some of its services in detail.
Forests provide the most diverse sets of habitats for all types of life, together holding more than 80% of the world’s land species of animals, plants and insects. This biodiversity is needed for the ecosystem to continue maintaining its basic ecological processes.
For example, termites, though considered a nuisance in modern-day homes, play a key role in maintaining forests. They breakdown dead trees in the forests that become nutrients for the soil. If termites were extinct, we would have stacks of dead trees and no nutrients in the soil for the natural regeneration of forests.
If you ever see huge termite hills in your next visit to a forest, it is a sign of a healthy forest.
Forest cover plays a key role in removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere which is absorbed by the trees.
Studies show that deforestation contributes to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, halting this deforestation and recovering the forestry could potentially contribute to over one-third of the total emissions reductions that scientists say are needed by 2030.
As trees decay and contribute to soil fertility, they also promote soil stability by holding it in place, which otherwise erodes. This is important because 2.6 billion people depend directly on agriculture for their livelihoods. But almost 52% of the land used for agriculture is affected by soil degradation.
This land degradation affects 1.5 billion people globally, including an estimated 74% of the world’s poor. This situation will get worse if we deplete our forest lands.
Water Regulation and Conservation
Healthy forest ecosystems can filter out water pollution, regulate stream flows, recharge aquifers, and absorb flooding.
The ability of forests to supply these green infrastructure services are much cheaper and environment friendly than installing and maintaining comparable ‘built’ infrastructure.
For example, building treatment plants to clean up rivers can take 6 billion dollars and 300 million more to maintain the system per year. On the other hand, restoring wetlands that naturally clean the rivers and maintain biodiversity costs only 1 billion dollars spread over 10 years.
Source of livelihood
Globally, more than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods. Of these, some 300-350 million live within or close to dense forests and depend entirely on forests for subsistence.
These forests ecosystem services are just one part of the environment. There are so many ecosystems that interact and make life on earth possible. However, we have failed to consider the immense value it holds for us. One of the reasons is because these values are not converted into monetary terms. Thus, people sometimes make a seemingly unconscious choice – destroy our valuable ecosystem to appease market demands.
Today, the market is extracting our natural resources without considering its environmental costs. But there is a solution that can balance both. One that takes into account the ‘value’ of our ecosystem services.
Measuring the unmeasurable
In 2001, the ‘Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’ (MA) was launched to assess the ecosystem and the environment. They found that over the 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly to meet the growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.
On top of this, the threat of climate change prompted discussions around the importance of ecosystems and the services they provide for us. Thus, MA constituting of more than 1000 scientists around the world studied these ecosystem services and grouped them into four broad 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;
- Cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.
These categories should help us realize the layers in which we depend on our natural environment. If this was not enough, several studies have started converting these ecosystem services into monetary values to bring these discussions to the front stage. However, none of these studies matters if we don’t truly value what we get from ecosystem services. So, are we valuing our ecosystem services correctly?
Can Money Buy Ecosystem Services?
Losing species 1000x faster than any other time in history shows that we are clearly undervaluing the ecosystem services it is providing us. So, how much do we need to fix this?
As of today, the total global biodiversity conservation funding needs are estimated to be US$ 722–967 billion per year by 2030. That is a lot! However, if you think about it, it is not that much! Hang on before you raise the pitchforks. Remember what I said at the very start? Our Environment provides us with an estimated US$ 125 – 145 trillion worth of ecosystem services annually. Spending roughly under US$ 1 trillion to get US$ 125-145 trillion worth of services feels almost like a no-brainer.
In the end, the choice is up to us. Make the greatest trade deal of all time and protect our ecosystem and its services or run into an environmental debt where no one emerges the winner.
What can you do to Protect Biodiversity and our Ecosystems? Watch this short video for some suggestions!
- Theories and Principles of Sustainability: Looking Back in Time
- Water Scarcity – A Brief Analysis
- Sustainable Farming: Top 5 Ways of Securing the Future of Food