Ecosystem Services Toolkit

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Completing and Using Ecosystem Service Assessment for Decision-Making -
An Interdisciplinary Toolkit for Managers and Analysts

The Ecosystem Services Toolkit is a technical guide to ecosystem services assessment and analysis that offers practical, step-by-step guidance for governments at all levels, as well as for consultants and researchers. The approach is fully interdisciplinary, integrating biophysical sciences, social sciences, economics, and traditional and practitioner knowledge. It provides guidance on how to consider and incorporate ecosystem services analysis in a variety of different policy contexts such as spatial planning, environmental assessment, and wildlife management, among others. It contains numerous innovative tools and resources designed to enhance users’ understanding of ecosystem services and to support analysis and decision-making. Canadian examples are featured throughout the guide.

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Executive summary


Ecosystem services (ES), sometimes referred to as “nature’s benefits,” draw attention to the ways that people depend on a healthy environment.Footnote 1 ES support life (e.g., by providing air, water, food, raw materials, medicines), security (e.g., by mitigating extreme weather events, spread of vector-borne diseases), and quality of life (e.g., by supporting mental and physical health, cultural identity, recreation), among many other things. Regardless of what they are called, nature’s benefits are the basis of human lives and economies. Humans are instrumental in most ES to varying degrees through environmental management and modification. Biodiversity-the variability of life among and within species and ecosystems-is an essential component in ES. Biodiversity underpins ecosystem resilience, integrity, and functioning.Footnote 2

Human activity, however, has caused major declines in biodiversity worldwide and significant degradation of ecosystems.Footnote 3 In 2010, the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Global Biodiversity Outlook-3 (GBO-3) report found that all major pressures on biodiversity were increasing and that “some ecosystems were being pushed towards critical thresholds or tipping points.”Footnote 4 These losses severely compromise the ability of ecosystems to produce ES, with measurable costs to public health, security, and well-being. The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) assessed the condition and trends of ecosystems and ES, and how they benefit human well-being. Among the MA’s main findings is that “over the past 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, fiber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.” Footnote 5

The need for ecosystem service assessment

Example: An agricultural community has signalled their worry about decreasing fruit crops and suspects that declining pollination rates are the cause. An ES assessment might focus on improving ecological knowledge about how pollinator species are faring, and look at associated ES such as crop production, habitat, natural erosion control, and ecotourism at the same time. These additional ES are linked to pollination via ecological and economic pathways, and have been identified as socially and economically valuable to local populations. As part of the assessment, there may be a need to assess the economic value of pollination in this area to justify specific management interventions.

Increasing human populations and increasing urbanization are intensifying demands on ecosystems, placing ES at greater risk. Due to the complex and interrelated nature of ES, a more comprehensive approach is needed to address situations where decisions involving or impinging on ecosystems would leave human well-being diminished through ES loss. “Ecosystem service assessment” is an approach that has been developed to meet this need, and governments around the world are increasingly considering ES assessment and its associated analyses to inform their policies, decisions, and management practices. ES assessment requires consideration of ecosystem functions, how those functions generate the services to produce benefits, and how those benefits are distributed to society. It is therefore a broadly interdisciplinary, technical activity, requiring an interdisciplinary expert team to complete. This approach identifies the consequences of environmental change and how environmental management decisions can enhance, diminish or maintain the flow of ES benefits. The intent of ES assessment is to provide comprehensive information regarding the costs and benefits to assist in environmental management decisions.

Policy relevance of ES assessment

ES assessment can support and inform analyses and decisions related to many issues. Guidance is provided (in Chapter 3) for using ES assessment for the following five broad groups of policy issues:

  • Area-based planning. Featured examples are regional strategic environmental assessment and land-use/spatial planning.
  • Regulatory decision analysis. Featured examples are environmental (impact) assessment, strategic environmental assessment, and regulatory and policy development.
  • Environmental damages assessment. Featured example is environmental damages assessment.
  • Environmental management. Featured examples are establishing and managing protected areas, managing species and ecosystems, and managing invasive alien species.
  • Conservation instruments. Featured examples are conservation incentive programs and conservation offsets.

For any particular policy issue that is being addressed, it is important to identify the relevance of ES, as well as the entry points in the policy process for considering ES and what some of those considerations might include.

ES assessment is a technical, interdisciplinary activity

ES assessment provides a practical set of procedures for understanding what might be gained or lost from a given management choice and the human dimensions of such effects. It can help managers to better comprehend and address potential issues and reduce conflict. Briefly, ES assessment involves:

  • identifying high-priority ES;
  • assessing their environmental, socio-cultural, and economic dynamics and their significance; and
  • identifying the consequences of change on these ES.

ES assessment typically requires biophysical measures and descriptions of the ecosystems and the dynamics involved in the production of ES. It also requires description of ES benefits to people and the dynamics of how benefits are distributed among different groups of people. People are often not aware of some benefits that they rely on from ecosystems. ES assessment clarifies these benefits as well as benefits that people commonly know of. ES assessment may include identifying the significance of ES benefits to people through valuation. Valuation can be particularly useful when decisions involve trade-offs, when decision-makers need to justify costs associated with the management of ES or when there is a need to inform diverse stakeholders of the broad value, or importance, of ES. Integrated analysis of the various relevant ecological, socio-cultural, and economic factors can be completed using a decision-support approach (such as cost-benefit analysis, multi-criteria analysis or structured decision-making) that can identify trade-offs and implications of different environmental management and development options.

The primary objective of ES assessment is to support evidence-based decision-making to improve human well-being and ensure environmental sustainability. Because ES are the basis for most of the relationships between ecosystems and human well-being, ES assessment necessarily considers both ecosystem dynamics and human dependence on those dynamics. Therefore, ES assessments do not replace other ecosystem-focused analyses, but can be used in conjunction with them.

A conceptual and analytical framework for ES assessment

The conceptual and analytical framework used by this Toolkit for conducting ES assessment is shown in Figure i. By illustrating how ecosystem components are connected, this framework helps with understanding how a proposed activity or decision might impact the supply of ES. The depiction of multiple disciplines and kinds of knowledge that are needed to understand ES dynamics is a feature of this framework. It shows how most ES assessments will need biophysical, socio-cultural, and economic information. In addition to the processes of ES production and benefit distribution, the framework recognizes the role of management and governance in affecting these processes, as well as the broader social and natural drivers of change-both direct and indirect-that influence how ES are produced and managed.

Figure i. Conceptual and analytical framework for this Toolkit. (Adapted from Haines-Young et al. 2006)
Flowchart of the framework


Long description for Figure i

Figure i is a graphic showing the conceptual framework for the Ecosystem Services Toolkit. The diagram consists of three horizontal bars, with connecting arrows. The top bar is titled Management and Governance and Drivers of Change and shows how these things influence the ability of ecosystems to generate ES. The centre bar shows how ES arise within a “social-ecological system” as a series of five stages from left to right. First are biophysical structures and processes of ecosystems (also known as natural capital). Moving to the right, these structures and processes give rise to ecosystem functions. Ecosystem processes and functions result in ecosystem services which are shown in the middle. Further to the right, ES provide benefits to humans, and finally on the left side of the bar, these services and benefits have significance to human well-being. The lowest bar of the diagram is titled Interdisciplinary Analysis and lists the broad fields of knowledge needed to complete an ES assessment.


A six-step assessment

This Toolkit provides step-by-step guidance to complete a robust, comprehensive ES assessment. This includes guidance about the information, analysis, and process that can be helpful. The effort required to complete a thorough ES assessment depends on the complexity of the questions and the types of information and analysis needed to support the decision. The following six steps can be completed to different degrees depending on what is required to address the specific issue for which an assessment is being undertaken. For example, a small team can attempt to work through the steps quickly to decide which steps will be needed to answer their questions, and where more resources should be directed.

Table i is a quick reference guide to the six-step process for completing an ES assessment detailed in Chapter 2. Although steps are defined sequentially for ease of communication, in practice the process is both iterative and progressive.

Table i. Quick reference guide to ES assessment in six steps.

Six Steps in ES Assessment: Quick Reference Guide

Step 1. Defining the issue and context

  • Setting up a lead team
  • Defining the issue(s) that are driving the assessment
  • Reviewing key terms and considerations

Step 2. Identifying priority ES and beneficiaries for assessment

  • Identifying priority ES and beneficiaries

Step 3. Identifying what needs to be evaluated to answer assessment questions

  • Organizing assessment team and process:
    • Identifying resource requirements: time, expertise, and funding
    • Establishing advisory, technical, and review groups
    • Developing an administrative plan
    • Reviewing the ES Priority Screening Tool with assembled team
  • Identifying what will be evaluated to answer assessment questions:
    • Describing the priority ES within their social and ecological contexts
    • Tracking how system components relate to each other
    • Developing a technical assessment plan

Step 4. Going into detail: Identifying and using indicators, data sources, and analysis methods

  • Identifying which indicators are most relevant for assessing each ES
  • Identifying and gathering existing data sources or developing new data
  • Selecting and using analysis methods and tools to answer the assessment questions
  • Choosing analysis approach

Step 5. Synthesizing results to answer assessment questions

  • Integrating and synthesizing results

Step 6. Communicating assessment outcomes

  • Understanding what results mean and do not mean
  • Communicating results to different audiences
  • Distilling complex, integrated results into key messages

Step 1 is the most critical step in an ES assessment: the clear definition of the issue and identification of the questions for which answers are needed. In some cases, the issue may already be well understood but, especially with complex issues, there is often considerable work required to develop a detailed understanding of the issue and the various ecological, economic, and socio-cultural factors that are relevant. The second most valuable activity is completion of the ES Priority Screening Tool. It is used to identify whether or not an ES assessment is warranted for a particular case. In all ES assessments, it is used to logically determine which ES may be at risk in a particular case and the key considerations, including how people are likely to be affected. Working through the ES Priority Screening Tool provides an analytically sound justification for the decision of which ES should be the focus of an assessment. The information gathered to complete the tool’s worksheets is the foundation for the remainder of the assessment.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of an ES assessment, multiple analysis methods and tools will be needed. It is very important to select and use analytical methods and tools that are appropriate for answering the assessment questions. The five most common broad types of analyses used in ES assessment focus on:

  • the extent, condition, and trends in ES (this may include how the extent, quality, and connectivity of landscape components relate to the provision of ES; “trends” means how ES are changing);
  • the socio-cultural and economic values of ES benefits (valuation);
  • the interactions among multiple ES, including trade-offs, synergies, and bundling;
  • the relationships among ES, drivers of change, and the provision of ES benefits (this may include the distribution of and access to benefits); and
  • alternative future scenarios of ES and human well-being resulting from possible management interventions.

An ES assessment can include one or any combination of these analysis types.

The conclusions generated through the analyses can be applied to answer the assessment questions and support the decision for which the assessment was completed.

It is essential to understand what the results mean; however, it is equally important to understand what the results do not mean. The scope, orientation, meaning, and relevance of results will all be influenced by the choices that were made in designing and implementing the assessment. Deciding on the key messages of an assessment is one of the most important steps of the communication process.

It is not likely to be feasible to complete a comprehensive assessment for every decision. However, ES analyses and considerations can still inform different decisions through a strategic approach. The scope of the assessment may include anything from a short literature review to an in-depth collection and analysis of data, depending on the importance and complexity of the issue and the availability of resources to complete it. A more thorough ES assessment is likely to be very useful and appropriate for issues that are large and complex and pose significant threats to the environment. Such a fully developed assessment will provide results that can inform many decisions about the issue. In the case of issues that are smaller and less complex and pose lower risk to the environment, it is realistic to complete more modest analyses while still using the analytically robust steps and tools in this Toolkit in a strategic way. Even for a relatively simple “desk-based” analysis, considering the ecological, socio-cultural, and economic aspects of the issue in an integrated way is helpful to identify the critical considerations, and to choose actions that can result in more positive outcomes.

This toolkit is a comprehensive “how-to” guide and resource

This Toolkit offers a practical, step-by-step guide and numerous resources for further understanding and direction. The Toolkit approach is fully interdisciplinary. It is meant to assist in addressing the need to build capacity to use ES assessment and to help reflect ES considerations in environmental management and decision-making. Roles for different kinds of knowledge are interwoven throughout this Toolkit. This is because ES are a result of the interactions between ecosystems and human societies. ES assessment and many of its component analyses will, therefore, be accomplished through interdisciplinary collaboration among biophysical scientists, social scientists, and economists in every step.

Toolkit users are strongly encouraged to scan through this whole document prior to beginning an assessment to orient themselves on what is involved and what tools are available, and to understand when and how their own areas of expertise can contribute to the work of an assessment.

The Toolkit approach can be adapted as needed to each context. Because each ecosystem is unique, an assessment is typically context-specific. In some cases, decision-makers may want to know whether a set of ES is being managed sustainably or if any ES are close to collapse. In other cases, they may want to know which ES are important to local populations, in what ways they are important, and their relative significance, for example, in order to develop a regional plan.

This Toolkit contains key tools and resources for planning and undertaking an ES assessment and the analyses that contribute to such an assessment (see the What’s Inside This Toolkit graphic below):

  • Chapter 1 sets the foundations. It illustrates the utility of ES assessment for a wide range of policy-related activities, with five examples ranging from flood control to freshwater provision. Important from the outset is familiarity with the types of ES, and the conceptual and analytical framework used to assess them in this Toolkit. The chapter closes with advice on how to determine whether or not an ES assessment is advisable or warranted for a given situation.
  • Chapter 2 explains how to complete ES assessments for a range of needs. The chapter explains the six steps of ES assessment, from clearly identifying the reasons and context for the work to communicating the final results. Links to key tools and resources in the Tool Tabs are integrated to help complete each step. Suggestions for strategic use of the steps are offered for when time and resources are unavailable for a comprehensive assessment, but some degree of ES analysis is still desired.
  • Chapter 3 offers advice on how to address ES considerations in a variety of different policy contexts such as spatial planning, environmental assessment, and wildlife management, among others. For each context, the chapter advises on the relevance of ES, entry points for incorporating ES analysis or considerations in typical processes, additional considerations, and sources. Canadian examples are featured for most of the contexts.
  • Ten “Tool Tabs” provide tools and resources for completing an ES assessment, including:
    • practical descriptions with examples for each of 28 types of ES;
    • concise advice about seven cross-cutting issues in ES assessment;
    • considerations for ES assessment involving Indigenous communities in Canada;
    • nine practical worksheets to complete an ES assessment;
    • explanations of 11 indicator categories, and an extensive table of indicators for each type of ES;
    • clear advice about both economic and socio-cultural approaches to valuation;
    • a compendium of factsheets about more than 40 data sources, analysis methods, and tools for ES assessment;
    • answers to the 45 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) posed in the Toolkit chapters;
    • a glossary of definitions for more than 70 key terms; and
    • a reference list of more than 110 Canadian ES-related analyses.
  • Footnotes are used throughout the document to clarify and substantiate content, direct users to important resources elsewhere in the Toolkit, and contribute to the resource value of the Toolkit.
  • A complete bibliographic list of sources cited is provided at the end of the Toolkit.

Genesis of this toolkit

For more than twenty years, Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments have worked collaboratively to support the sustainable use and conservation of biological diversity, further to Canada’s national commitments under the UN CBD. They developed and implemented the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, Biodiversity Outcomes Framework, and 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada.Footnote 6

Under the guidance of a national committee of assistant deputy ministers (ADMs), governments undertake practical initiatives that help to strengthen capacity for informed decision-making about biodiversity in Canada. One such initiative is the Value of Nature to Canadians Study (VNCS), mandated to develop information on the ecological, socio-cultural, and economic significance of nature in Canada, to Canadians. A national taskforce with one representative from each province, territory, and federal department with an environment-related mandate has worked together since 2009 to deliver useful products. Most recently, they published the results of the 2012 Canadian Nature Survey.Footnote 7

A major aspect of the VNCS has been to advance the ability to work with the concept of ES for decision support. Canada’s governments at all levels have an interest in how ES assessment can help them with a wide range of decisions at different scales. The national ADM Conservation, Wildlife, and Biodiversity Steering Group, and the ADM Federal Biodiversity Committee recognized the need for clear, practical guidance that would help their staff and consultants complete ES assessments. The ADMs sought an approach that fully integrates biophysical sciences, social sciences, and economics for reliable results, so they requested this Toolkit as part of the VNCS program of work. The VNCS Taskforce was, therefore, to address the following four issues through this Toolkit:

  • how to determine if an ES assessment is right for the situation;
  • how to complete a robust, interdisciplinary ES assessment incorporating biophysical, social, and economic sciences;
  • how to know what assessment results mean, and what they do not mean; and
  • how to use ES assessment in a variety of policy and decision contexts.

This Toolkit was developed collaboratively with federal, provincial, and territorial government staff and non-government expert reviewers and contributors from academia and the private sector. It is informed by a synthesis of ES assessments and related peer-reviewed research carried out around the world for more than 15 years. The work was led by the VNCS Secretariat in Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Who is this toolkit for?

The primary audience for this Toolkit is analysts and managers working for governments and their agencies in Canada at the federal, provincial, territorial, regional, watershed or municipal scale. The Toolkit can be used to complete ES assessments or component analyses in-house, if suitable expertise is available, or to instruct consultants who have suitable expertise on what procedures to follow when contracting the work on government’s behalf. As a technical guide, this Toolkit provides specific how-to advice for work to be completed by people with very different areas of expertise who come to the field of ES from different perspectives.

The Toolkit is especially relevant to professionals in the areas of environment and natural resources management. Its relevance also extends beyond these areas because the concept and measurement of ES help to integrate consideration of “the environment” in decisions that are not typically considered “environmental.” For example, it could also be useful to analysts and experts in health policy or transportation policy. Users of the Toolkit are encouraged to correspond with the lead authors to provide feedback on their experience.

What’s Inside This Toolkit


Long description for Figure 2

This page contains a graphic representation of the table of contents for the Toolkit. On the left side are five boxes stacked vertically and connected by arrows aiming downward. The first three boxes each contains a chapter title. Below these is a box listing the titles of the Tools in the ten Tool Tabs. The lowest box on the left lists other features including tip boxes, examples, step overviews, progress tracker, internal and external links, footnotes and complete list of sources cited. On the right side of the graphic is a box that connects to the “chapter two” box in the left column. This box lists each of the six steps in the ES assessment process. An arrow at the bottom of the box points down to another box that lists the titles of the nine practical worksheets that are a key feature of the Toolkit, contained in Tool Tab 4. A dashed arrow extends from the reference to Tool Tab 4 on the left side of the graphic to this list of Worksheets.



Footnote 1

See Tools – Tab 9: Glossary for definitions of key terms that appear in this Toolkit, such as benefits, values, and ES.

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Footnote 2

See Issue 6 in Tools – Tab 2: Cross-cutting Issues and Key Considerations for role of biodiversity in ES.

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Footnote 3

The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) found that 60 percent of the ES they assessed on a global scale (15 out of 24) were degraded or being used unsustainably.

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Footnote 4

UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 2010. GBO-4 reported in 2014 that while there has been some improvement, current trends indicate that these pressures will continue until at least 2020, see CBD 2014.

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Footnote 5

MA 2005.

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Footnote 6

Federal-Provincial-Territorial Governments of Canada 2014a; 1995; 2005. See BioDivCanada.

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Footnote 7

Federal-Provincial-Territorial Governments of Canada 2014b.

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