Understanding the Value of Ecosystem Services

Dr. Nial Moores, January 28th 2015

There still seems to be a widespread belief that conservation is somehow anti-development and almost a betrayal of our species, preventing people from benefitting from the “new” global wealth. This is far from true, of course. Conservation is demonstrably pro good development and simply calls for the maintenance of the natural wealth generated by our planet’s ecosystems so that it can be shared sustainably and equitably, between generations and with other species. Instead, a more genuine divide is the one that still separates those who at some level believe that we humans are uniquely intelligent and powerful, with a destiny to divide and control nature in order to profit from it; and those who have already started to realise that we need the Earth, but the Earth does not need us.

With a worldview of me-first and people-I-know-second, it might seem logical, even wise, to undertake development projects that are ecologically-disastrous like the Saemangeum reclamation and The Four Rivers project. It might even seem wise to call for the replacement of natural and near-natural ecosystems with eco-parks and overly-grand nature centres, whether in small city parks or as now proposed for a large swathe of the DMZ.

But to do so, to modify and degrade biodiverse and functioning ecosystems, is to ignore the very real cost of the loss of eco-system services that otherwise would help to provide us with healthy soils, water and air; and that otherwise would help to maintain a suitable climate.

As a small bird and habitat conservation organization, Birds Korea has worked for over a decade now documenting the continuing degradation of habitats and the resultant declines of large numbers of bird species, as communicated in our pioneering report “Status of Birds, 2014”. Declines in many of the ROK’s bird species indicate a decline in the health and natural productivity of the ecosystems on which they depend. And a decline in natural productivity and associated ecosystem services means, in real terms, the loss of sustainable human livelihoods and an increase in long-term economic costs. This is not the naïve opinion of a small NGO: instead it is the scientific and economic rationale and the intellectual foundation of the inter-governmental Ramsar Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Millennium Development Goals.

A recent paper by Constanza et al. (2014) entitled “Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services” (Global Environmental Change 26 (2014) 152–158) provides further support for this conservation worldview. The authors find a massive loss in the economic value of ecosystem services globally between 1997 and 2011 (estimated at between 4.3 and 20.2 trillion [!] USD/ year). They also identified the eco-services value of “tidal marshes and mangroves” at 194,000 USD/ hectare/ year. Applying such values, even coarsely, to tidal-flat reclamation projects in the Yellow Sea would suggest an annual economic loss in eco-services at Saemangeum alone of about 7.7 billion USD: equivalent to approximately 70 Trillion Korean Won of lost wealth since seawall closure there in 2006.

This all seems akin to cutting out someone’s heart and lungs, to sell them for a hundred Won.

One comment on “Understanding the Value of Ecosystem Services

  1. Could not agree more- the precipitous decline of Yellow sea fisheries is probably one of the most obvious escalating economic losses already.

    -interesting article below, which I introduce with a brief quote:

    “Pollution and land reclamation are the major causes of the depleted fish stocks as they both destroyed the spawning sites of fish stocks, which are generally located in shallow waters, according to Song Weiyan, an aquaculture researcher at Rizhao Polytechnic.”.


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