By Bo Kluitmans

For those who don’t know, biodiversity is in decline in all parts of the world. The biggest factor in this decline is large-scale food production. Land is getting used more intensively, and in The Netherlands, this mainly has to do with the amount of livestock. This form of land usage produces nitrogen oxides and ammonia, which are harmful to the biodiversity of the environment. While the Dutch government has decided to take drastic measures for big emitters in their policies, the electoral win of the farmer’s party BBB in the First Chamber is going to make executing this policy all the more difficult. While this may complicate things, the policies of the government were by definition not perfect. The policy implicitly uses a certain conceptualization of ecosystems, which is a contested concept.

On the site where the Dutch government states the approach to battling nitrogen emissions, the last sentence of the introductory paragraph states: “Because, the stronger nature is, the more it can take a beating and societal and economic developments become possible.” The image of nature being used implicitly is that of an Ecosystem Service, or ES. This concept is also being used by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), a national institute for policy analysis. Now, is this concept a valid starting point in realizing policy that strives to restore and conserve biodiversity? Let’s take a look at the driving concept behind the policies.

So, an ‘Ecosystem Service’ or simply ES, is a concept that frames an ecosystem as a service that provides all sorts of material for people. This could be direct, like the production of food but also indirect, like the purification of water. The value of an ecosystem is thus measured by its output, by the thing that it provides for us. Research conducted by the international initiative TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) has produced the effect that the use of ES is also being applied to research and policy-making on a national level. Their goal was to point out costs and benefits of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. Another research aim was to make practical implications for policy possible, by bringing together different disciplines like economics and natural sciences.

The practical benefits of the concept are also discussed in Economics of Ecosystem Services, where researchers from the WUR have put together an overview of the literature on (the economics of) ES. They cite scholars Slootweg and Van Beukering who name a few reasons to value Ecosystem Services. One of them is that this concept can assist the government in decision-making regarding allocating scarce resources to achieve environmental, social and economic goals.

There are also cons to using the ES concept. In Payment for Ecosystem Services and The Challenge of Saving Nature, scholars Kent Redford and William Adams have expressed their concerns about using the Ecosystems Services metaphor as a conservation strategy. They argue that using this metaphor has a risk attached to it. Namely: “economic arguments about services valued by humans will overwrite and outweigh noneconomic justifications for conservation.” The concept is, however, already widely used in the literature on ecosystems and policies.

So how does this translate into the policy? The Dutch government has made clear on their site that the restoration of biodiversity has to strengthen nature, so that societal and economic developments become possible. But the risk with the concept, as described above, shines through in the ideas of the government. Do we want nature to be able to ‘take a beating’ or do we want to create a more sustainable way of treating nature? In other words, is this focus on societal and economic development the right fundament to want to restore and preserve biodiversity? One could argue that we are dependent on natural resources in all kinds of ways, so the need to restore biodiversity based on economic and material value is just a necessary step in keeping ecosystem services available to everyone. However, one could thus also argue that the economic undertone in this metaphor is harmful, especially if the motive for keeping ecosystems intact is economic growth.

It is a fact that we need to preserve biodiversity in order to maintain healthy ecosystems. Otherwise we, in the West, wouldn’t have relatively easy access to food or clean water. Using a concept like ES in policies may then be an effective way to measure the value of ecosystems. The benefits of making the value of nature visible and more importantly, tangible for policy implications are great. That is precisely where the strength of the concept lies. The downside, however, is that by using this concept the risk exists that ecosystems keep being reduced to a tool for economic growth. Value can mean many different things to different people, but it would be a good idea for governments in general to create policies that are not solely based on maintaining the opportunity for economic development. If we really want to map the value of ecosystem services we need to keep a close eye on the way ecosystems are being conceptualized. Because ideas are present in policies, sometimes implicit, other times explicit, and the conceptualisation of ecosystems happens in a societal structure where economic growth is still seen as the driving factor behind welfare. 

But ecosystems are not just service providers, our whole existence depends on them, not to forget that we are part of them. So do we want to keep beating nature for economic developments, or do we maybe need to rethink the potentially harmful economic undertone of the nitrogen policies?

Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay