What is Ecosystem Assessment?

An Ecosystem Assessment (EA), sometimes referred to as ‘Ecosystem Services Assessment’, is an assessment of ecosystem health.

The main aim of an EA is to inform decision-makers, but also other stakeholders, about the state and trend of ecosystems and the links between ecosystems and human wellbeing. The most prominent example for an EA is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

When and why would the tool be useful?

An Ecosystem Assessment (EA) is a decision-support tool informing a range of strategic decisions. One main aim of an EA is to generate general awareness about the value of ecosystem services and the trade-offs inherent in decisions affecting ecosystems for policy and decision-makers and other relevant stakeholders. The valuation of ecosystem services can, for example, inform budget allocations or the application of futures, regulatory, incentive and engagement tools in response to ongoing evaluations of policy.

What is its relevance to the Ecosystem Approach and ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services are an important part of this tool, however it is vital to avoid a pre-selection of ecosystem services, for example because some ecosystem services are assumed to be marginal or because they are difficult to assess. This can lead to the undervaluation or neglect of important ecosystem services which would undermine the purpose of an Ecosystem Assessment (EA).

The principles of the Ecosystem Approach should always be acknowledged when undertaking an EA. To make the outcomes most useful for the target audience, it is crucial to involve relevant stakeholders at all stages of the process. One of the main challenges of an EA is to involve all relevant sectors of society, including those that are usually not engaged in environmental policy and management. Local EAs, in particular, match the principle of decentralisation and the use of local knowledge. It is also important to clearly define the spatial and temporal scale of an EA; but also how to deal with cross-boundary issues and discounting future costs and benefits to society.

How do you work with the tool in practical steps?

The scope of an Ecosystem Assessment (EA) is not clearly defined and it can include different elements. It is usually an academic exercise - often including primary research - to provide relevant information about ecosystem services at the scale where it is most useful for the target audience. An EA can, for example, include an assessment of the value of ecosystem services, trend and scenario analysis, and mapping of ecosystem services. Based on such analysis, it also often includes recommendations and response strategies for decision-makers.

The Institution of Environmental Sciences has produced practical guidance for carrying out an Ecosystem Services Assessment.

Case Study - Staffordshire Local Nature Partnership (LNP)

The Staffordshire Local Nature Partnership (LNP) has the vision to make Staffordshire a more prosperous and healthy environment to live in and believes that economic development can and must go hand-in-hand with protection of the County’s important environmental assets.

One priority objective identified by the LNP was to enable effective working partnerships between the environmental, economic, health and social sectors to improve decision-making and make the most of the green environment. On behalf of the LNP, Staffordshire County Council has commissioned an Ecosystem Assessment for the geographical area of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. The main objective was to ensure that sectors, organisations and departments which are usually not involved in environmental management and conservation recognise the true value of ecosystem services and the importance of ecosystem services to their activities. This Staffordshire Ecosystem Assessment incorporated the latest evidence and best practice from science and case studies with a focus on assessing the links and interdependencies between local functions and activities and ecosystems as well as the (monetary) value of ecosystem services ‘produced’ in Staffordshire.

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The following principles of the Ecosystem Approach are evident (light green) or significant (dark green) within this tool: