How Much is an Ecosystem Worth?

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity be a part of “A Community on Ecosystem Services” (ACES for short) in Jacksonville, Florida.

Through the ACES conference, which was attended by over 500 federal agency employees, academic researchers, NGO representatives, and others, I hoped to answer a few basic questions for myself:

  1. What is an ecosystem service?
  2. Why should we spend our time thinking about ecosystem services?
  3. Where can I look for ecosystem service-related jobs?

(I am, after all, a grad student on the cusp of the summer internship search.)

My four days at the ACES conference helped me answer these questions and more.


What is an ecosystem service?

Put simply, an ecosystem service is anything of economic value that an ecosystem (or nature, more generally) provides to humans.

Do you get firewood from the forest behind your house? That’s an ecosystem service.

Do you rely on neighborhood bees to pollinate the tomato plants in your garden? That’s an ecosystem service, too.

Do you go birdwatching in your free time? Do you live on a slope that is protected from erosion by tree cover? Do you benefit from a more stable climate because of all the carbon that is sequestered by trees and soils around the world?

Ecosystem services are all around us.

My first semester at the Nicholas School has brought me in contact with ecosystem services both in my backyard and around the world. I did a case study on how a nonprofit in Madagascar is using carbon sequestration as a tool to finance local mangrove conservation. As part of a policy project with the Nicholas Institute, I’ve been thinking about how land conservation can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

The ACES conference highlighted many more ways in which we benefit from ecosystems: using wetlands to regulate water flow and reduce flooding; improving public health through urban forestry and better access to nature; practicing cultural traditions that rely on native species and landscapes. Whether you live in downtown San Francisco, rural North Carolina, or coastal Madagascar, you depend on ecosystem services every day. We all do.


Why should we spend our time thinking about ecosystem services?

As people who care about protecting our natural resources, land, and climate, we’re often vexed by the way our free-market economy undervalues the environment. If you can’t drill it up, cut it down, or fence it off and sell tickets, you probably won’t worry much about nature when you’re making economic decisions.

But as we’ve just seen, nature is constantly providing us with countless life-critical services. If they were to disappear, we’d likely have to spend a lot of money recreating them on our own (think huge levees to stop flooding, or mass-scale water purification systems). So, while it may be hard to figure out the true economic value of a protected forest or wetland, zero is definitely not the right answer.

At the ACES conference, experts in the field presented on many different ways in which we can realize the true value of ecosystem services. Water quality markets have grown in popularity across the US over the past decades. Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes are proliferating in developing countries. Pilot projects now under development will use ecosystem services as equity for small-scale lines of credit.

However, a common refrain throughout ACES was that ecosystem service schemes are not a silver bullet for conservation. (Sound familiar?)

Given the inherently local nature of all conservation, along with the implementation challenges of scaling up ecosystem service schemes, don’t look for this model for valuing nature to revolutionize the world anytime soon. But as one piece of the puzzle for making conservation more economical than exploitation – some silver buckshot, if you will – the ecosystem service framework could go a long way.


Where can I look for ecosystem service-related jobs?

This is always a tricky question to approach as a grad student at a professional conference. But as it turns out, the tent of employment in ecosystem services is growing rapidly.

In October, the Obama administration signed an executive order directing federal agencies to consider ecosystem services in their decision-making. This directive could lead to more demand for federal employees who can think through the ecosystem service impacts of policies on agriculture, forests, air and water, etc.

Of course, the way forward under a Trump administration is highly unclear, but at least “repeal Obama’s action on ecosystem services” was not one of Trump’s campaign promises. If nothing else, the ACES conference showed me just how many smart and dedicated people in the federal government are thinking about these issues, and likely will continue to under a new administration.

Still, if government employment seems a bit too dicey these days, there’s a host of other opportunities in the field. Although the private sector was less well represented at ACES than it might have been, the conference did highlight some innovative private sector partnerships that are leading the way on corporate sustainability. The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with Dow Chemical to assess the value of nature in protecting business assets, while the World Wildlife Fund is partnering with Coca Cola to conserve freshwater resources worldwide.

The ACES conference convinced me that whatever sector I choose to work in, there will be ways to advance the value proposition for ecosystem services. Even in industries that don’t focus on, or indeed recognize the term “ecosystem services,” it can still make a huge difference to create a bottom-line argument for prioritizing conservation.

Nature is just too important to leave off the balance sheet.