A review of the Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science and Director of the NERC Macronutrient Cycles Programme, shares his thoughts on the new Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services, edited by Potschin, Haines-Young, Fish and Turner.

This handbook is a comprehensive guide to the current state of ecosystem services science and understanding. It is excellent to see a comprehensive coverage of this new and expanding field of ecosystem services. The expansion in this area of research has been impressive from a few papers in 2007 to over 18,000 today. Trying to see the ‘wood for the trees’ so to speak in this area has been difficult, with such a wealth of literature to catch up on. This handbook does an excellent job of integrating all the new ideas, concepts and approaches into one collection of short papers by the key experts in the field. There are very philosophical approaches about original concepts and new thinking, plus a call for a new approach to economics based on ecosystems valuation and accounting. There is also advice on the practical issues and difficulties of valuation and assessment, with illustrations using GIS, modelling and alternative costing approaches.

In my experience, the difficulty of applying such a methodology in a public arena, was bought home to me in the Kennet River Public Enquiry, where the argument was the trade-off between water abstraction in a classic chalk stream versus degradation to the river in terms of low flows, enhanced pollution and ecosystem degradation. In that 10 week public enquiry, the ecosystem valuation methods were largely discounted by the Enquiry Public Inspector (appointed by DEFRA) because of the methodology used for valuation of the ecosystem benefits. The rather vague methodology for valuation was up against the hard £6 million costs of replacing the abstraction by a 30 mile pipe and pumping system for Swindon. This was easier for the Public Inspector to grasp than the ecosystem valuation method used. This is really at the crux of the acceptance in the public domain. So for ecosystem services methodology to be accepted the techniques still seem to need additional development and the concepts need further acceptance by public inspectors, environmental managers and government at a range of levels.

Also, the field does not seem to really know how to translate the knowledge on ecological, soil and riverine processes into quantities and hence to valuation. For example, rivers do a great deal of ecosystem restoration via natural processes. So bacteria clean up rivers by converting organic matter to carbon dioxide, reaeration in rivers raises oxygen levels thereby preventing low oxygen levels and fish kills. There are also enhanced denitrification in rivers thereby reducing nitrates which damage ecology, biodiversity and can cause human health problems.

All of these process can be modelled and quantified although putting a value on them is difficult. So it seems to me that the science and valuation has further to go, especially making better use of the process based knowledge. Nevertheless this handbook is excellent in bringing together a really important and increasingly influential field and first handbook to address this complex and innovative area of research.

More information on the Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services can be found here.

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