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From science to governance: The journey of ecosystem services & natural capital in Ireland

Andrew Neill of Trinity College Dublin and Biorbic Centre has written a paper charting the transition from science to governance of ecosystem services and natural capital in Ireland over the past 20 years, through analysis of 50 policy documents published between 1996 and 2020. Here he writes a blog explaining that transition:


The words we use to describe the world around us are constantly evolving. In recent times, two terms have gained popularity for how they capture the interlinkages between people and nature: “ecosystem services” (the benefits people receive from nature), and “natural capital” (the natural assets that make up the environment and its ecosystems).


Figure 1: Example of how ecosystem service and natural capital terms provide precision in language concerning ecosystems and their management.


These concepts have become commonplace within academic literature ever since being catapulted into the spotlight following a famous global estimation of services in 1997. This is because they provide a vocabulary that is accessible to people from different stakeholder groups and backgrounds (Fig. 1). Today, their use spans entire disciplines of research and discovery including ecology, geography, economics, and social sciences.


Moving beyond academic theory, these terms have become embedded within international policy and environmental agreements such as the Aichi targets, Sustainable Development Goal 15, the EU Green Deal, and the European Biodiversity Strategy 2030. This science-policy transition has occurred despite active debate, discussion and controversary regarding their use from both the scientific community and broader civil society but - at least for now- these terms are central to some of the most important agenda-setting environmental policy of modern times.


For example, the EU Green Deal, a policy that intersects with all areas of governance and society, firmly embeds the idea of natural capital through its stated aim “to protect, conserve and enhance the EU's natural capital”.

Achieving such ambitious policy aims requires action at the national level. The responsibility and authority for environmental management typically rests with sovereign nation states, and so if these concepts are to influence environmental management and decision-making, they must trickle downwards from the very top of governance systems and into the national agenda. One of the main pathways to achieve this is adoption within national public policy, which has been suggested as one mechanism with the greatest potential for these concepts to drive change for environmental decision-making and management.


In a newly published open-access paper, we investigated this science-policy transition by asking when, where, and what integration of “ecosystem service” and “natural capital” has occurred within the Irish policy landscape (graphical abstract shown Fig. 2). Ireland serves as a useful example because it is subject to the high-level, top-down policy obligations mentioned above that have already incorporated these concepts, and the economic strength and global reputation of Ireland’s primary producing sectors (agri-food, forestry, and marine) depend upon domestic ecosystems and their management.


Figure 2: Graphical abstract showing research question, methods, and results


It is impossible to observe the integration of metaphorical concepts into governance systems directly. Instead, we used content analysis to examine 50 policy documents published between 1996 and 2020. These documents serve as objective, observable data sources for this phenomenon as they are direct outputs from Irish governance systems. The documents were selected to cover a wide range of environmentally relevant areas including primary producing sector strategies, biodiversity policy, environmental reports, and Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine annual reports.


What did we find?


1. “Ecosystem service” and “natural capital” terms were found to have successfully penetrated Irish policy across all sectors analysed. This process was observed beginning in 2008 and gaining momentum since. Overall, “ecosystem service” use was four-times as common across the sample compared to “natural capital” (Fig. 3a).


2. The use of these terms was unequal and fragmented across the policy landscape. Most uses were found within EPA environmental reports and biodiversity policy. Forestry documents contained an intermediate level of use, while agri-food, marine, and DAFM reporting contained limited or low use (Fig. 3b).


3. The language surrounding these terms reflected a blend of ecological, socio-economic, and action-orientated ideas, consistent with their interdisciplinary background. It is important to note that while the language shares this interdisciplinarity, this study is unable to comment on the intent behind the use of this language, or the downstream interpretation and operation associated with it.


4. Descriptions of 35 different ecosystem services were identified, often without the use of “ecosystem service” terminology. Descriptions of cultural services were well-represented such as biodiversity, habitats, landscape, recreation, and tourism suggesting these services were visible within the policy landscape. Despite this visibility, we know that this time-period has coincided with environmental degradation culminating in a national biodiversity and climate emergency. This raises questions about how the integration of new terminology can address historic and systematic problems within governance systems.


Figure 3: a) Frequency of use of ecosystem service and natural capital terms, b)

distribution of use between different policy document types.


Overall, Ireland’s policy landscape is not a blank canvas with respect to ecosystem service and natural capital concepts, but integration of these concepts is fragmented and incomplete. There is evidence that these terms are increasingly embedded within policy text starting from 2008, but concentrated in certain policy topics rather than a holistic, joined-up vision across the entire governance landscape.


Translating these concepts from words on the page into positive action for nature is another, even greater challenge, and a topic for future research. For now, there is still work to be done creating a unified starting point and shared understanding so that governance systems are primed and ready to make use of emerging science and management tools such as natural capital accounts and ecosystem service assessments.


Access the full paper here for further reading: Conceptual integration of ecosystem services and natural capital within Irish national policy: An analysis over time and between policy sectors


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