The Importance of Nature

In Canada and internationally there has been increasing focus on the need to identify the value of goods and services that are naturally provided by biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. We rely upon these "ecosystem services" or "ecological goods and services" (EG&S) to maintain our economy, security, health and well-being. Understanding their value in social and economic terms enables decision-makers to make more fully informed choices supporting healthy environments and communities. The value of most ecosystem services has not historically been included in measures of economic well-being such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product), because they have not been systematically measured. It is now widely recognized that ecosystem services are the fundamental underpinning of our economy.

Cover of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Millennium Ecosystem

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) is a series of comprehensive reports produced through the United Nations in 2005 that clearly defines and assesses these ecosystem services on a global scale.

Ecosystem services are defined in the MA as comprising four categories:

  1. Provisioning services - material goods that nature provides include food, fuel, fibre, genetic resources, biochemicals, fresh water, natural medicines and pharmaceuticals.
  2. Regulating services - healthy functioning ecosystems regulate the climate and the composition of the atmosphere, including through carbon sequestration. They provide natural water purification and waste treatment services, pollinate crops, control soil erosion, and mitigate against diseases, pests and natural hazards.
  3. Cultural services - healthy ecosystems contribute to human well-being by supporting spiritual, aesthetic, heritage, educational and recreational needs.
  4. Supporting services - underlying all other goods and services are supporting functions such as photosynthesis, soil formation, primary production, and nutrient cycling.
Photo: © Environment Canada

The MA showed that 60% of the earth's ecosystem services were being degraded and used unsustainably. Degraded ecosystems lose the ability to provide the services that we rely upon, including clean air and water. Environmental scientists and economists have explained that it is necessary to document the value that ecosystem services provide to human society and include that value in economic and environmental decision-making. The outcome should be decisions that secure the ongoing availability of vital ecosystem services through the conservation and sustainable use of earth's natural resources.


Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, ecosystem services, and drivers of change

Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, ecosystem services, and drivers of change
Long Description for Figure 1.1


Valuing Nature - Long Description

Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, ecosystem services, and drivers of change

Global Biodiversity Outlook 2. CBD Secretariat 2006, Fig. 1.1

Source Document: Valuing Nature

The diagram consists of six boxes arranged in a square with arrows leading from one to the next representing a continuous cycle of influence. In short, biodiversity is shown as essential to healthy functioning ecosystems, which produce benefits that are called ecosystem goods and services, and which are necessary to support human life and well-being. However, biodiversity and ecosystem functions are both directly and indirectly impacted by several human-caused activities that are potentially destructive, and therefore potentially reducing services that humans rely upon. This highlights the importance of managing drivers of change so as to reduce or mitigate their detrimental impacts on nature, and by extension, negative impacts on human lives and livelihoods.  

In full detail, at the lower left the most prominent box is labelled Biodiversity, and includes a list of terms describing it: Number, Relative abundance, Composition, Interactions. These refer to all life at the genetic, species, and ecosystems levels and are what comprise biodiversity. 

An arrow leads down from the Biodiversity box to a box labelled Ecosystem Functions, indicating that healthy functioning of ecosystems are dependent on biodiversity.

Both of these boxes also have arrows leading to the right to a larger box labelled Ecosystem Goods and Services. This large box lists the four categories of services that are produced by healthy functioning ecosystems, as identified by the United Nations series of reports titled the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

1. Goods (also known as Provisioning Services) include food, fiber, genetic resources, biochemicals and fresh water;

2. Cultural Services include spiritual and religious values, knowledge systems, education and inspiration, recreation and aesthetic values;

3. Regulating Services: resistance to invasive species, herbivory, pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, pest regulation, natural hazard protection, erosion regulation, and water purification; and,

4. Supporting Services (which underlie all the others): primary production, provision of habitat, nutrient cycling, soil formation and retention, production of atmospheric oxygen, and water cycling.

The ecosystem services box has an arrow point up to a box labelled Human Well-being, which consists of: basic material for a good life, health, security good social relations, freedom of choice and action. The relationship implied is that ecosystem services are what make human life and well-being possible. 

Following an arrow to the left from Human Well-being, is a box labeled Indirect Drivers of Change, which are demographic, economic, sociopolitical, science and technology, and cultural and religious. This box has an arrow pointing back to the human well-being box, indicating a feedback whereby the two influence each other. Another arrow from the indirect drivers box points down to Direct Drivers of Change, which also has a feedback relationship with human well-being, and includes climate change, nutrient loading, land use change, species introduction, and overexploitation. 

Direct drivers are shown by the arrows to impact on biodiversity and by extension, on ecosystem functions.