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  • Fiona Smith

Making nature count: indicators for ecosystem services and natural capital

Despite advances in the natural capital and ecosystem services concepts over the last 30 years, we’re still a long way from turning them into a practical policy tool. Dr Tomás Murray explores how other countries have approached this issue and what Ireland can learn from them.


With the establishment and increasing acceptance of the concepts of ecosystem services and natural capital, there is now a wider societal interest in the function of biodiversity and its role in supporting life and the human economy. But imagine trying to run a business without knowing what type of stock you have, where it is, how much you have, or even its value. In terms of managing and protecting our natural environment, this is the challenge we now face.

Thankfully, at international and national policy levels, this challenge has been accepted and, particularly in the EU, significant resources have been invested to develop standardised classification systems to:Identify ecosystems (European Nature Information System, EUNIS)Identify ecosystem services (Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services framework, CICES)Develop a unified model for mapping, assessing and valuing ecosystem services and natural capital (Haines-Young and Potschin “cascade model”)

For ecosystem service maps to be truly useful, we need detail

Superficially, the ‘where’ and ‘what type’ of ecosystem question can be answered with a comprehensive mapping exercise that adopts the classification systems above to identify and spatially delineate ecosystems and the services they provide.

However, to deliver an ecosystem and ecosystem service map at a resolution that is relevant for effective management (i.e. 10s of metres rather than 100s of metres) requires significant resources and a high level of technical expertise, both of which are lacking in many countries across Europe. The European Commission is supporting multiple initiatives to address the shortfall in technical expertise in mapping and assessing ecosystem services within Member States (MAESESMERALDAOpenNESS to name but a few), but human and financial resources are still a major bottleneck in delivering these maps.

“To deliver an ecosystem and ecosystem service map at a resolution that is                     relevant for effective management requires significant resources and a high                   level of technical expertise, both of which are lacking in many countries across              Europe.” ​However, once we have our map with its jigsaw of ecosystems - which itself will need to be updated periodically as our landscape and seascapes change either through how we use them or climate change (or most likely both!) – some important questions present themselves:How do we measure ‘how much’ of a given ecosystem service is provided per piece of the jigsaw (and there may be multiple services provided per piece)?Which of the surrounding pieces benefit most from that service (and there may be multiple beneficiaries)?


How do we quantify the value of each service? This is the intellectual and technical challenge that, even for countries that have invested heavily into developing maps of ecosystem services and natural capital, is still a daunting undertaking even with the wealth of knowledge accrued in academia and governmental organisations involved with its implementation.

Finland's ​transparent and coherent approach ​ The Haines-Young and Potschin model (2010, illustrated below) is now becoming the go-to conceptual framework with which to tackle these questions and, in my opinion, one of the most cogent examples of its application at a national level was recently published by a consortium of governmental and non-governmental organisations led by the Finnish Environmental Institute (Mononen et al., 2016).



What sets the Finnish study apart from other national-level approaches to national ecosystem service mapping and valuation is the transparency and conceptual coherence of their process. In essence, the Finns focussed on developing a set of national indicators for each ecosystem service and each step of the cascade model for that service. This meant that they were able to:Identify ecosystems and services that were nationally relevantPrioritise the services that are most important in managing those ecosystemsIdentify the relevant data for the mapping and valuation of each service After three years of repeated consultation and redrafting of the indicator set, the end result was the identification of 112 indicators across 28 ecosystem services of national importance to Finland. You can see the final list here and two examples are illustrated below (from Mononen et al., 2016).

“Some of the indicators might raise an eyebrow outside of Finland, for example               berries and mushroom habitats (foraging for wild foodstuffs is a national                       passion), but many others would be of direct relevance for Ireland.”



​Some of the indicators might raise an eyebrow outside of Finland, for example berries and mushroom habitats (foraging for wild foodstuffs is a national passion) or reindeer pastures, but many others would be of direct relevance for Ireland. For example, water retention measured as area of un-drained habitats, vegetation type and area; and nature tourism measured as area of preferred natural habitats and accessibility.

Three of the key drivers of the success of the Finnish project were the pre-existing thematic working groups, established originally to deliver a comprehensive suite of biodiversity and environmental indicators (http://www.biodiversity.fi/), Finland is a data-dense society with wide-ranging and detailed environmental data, and Finns place a high cultural value on environmental protection and consistently rank favourably in global comparisons of environmental sustainability.

What can Ireland learn from the Finnish example?

1. Establish multidisciplinary thematic working groups across ecosystems (marine, agriculture, woodland etc.) to collate and interpret biophysical data relating to the relevant ecosystems and services.

2. Via the thematic working groups, modify the existing international classification framework of ecosystem services (CICES) to an Irish context, prioritise the most important ecosystem services for Ireland and identify the most appropriate indicators for those ecosystems and services.

3. Identify existing datasets, and knowledge gaps needing to be filled, that will facilitate the development of indicators. ​ 4. An integrated valuation approach should be adopted to fully reflect the value of ecosystems and the services they provide. Although conceptually economic valuations of ecosystem services may have the greatest traction with decision makers, in many cases non-monetary valuations may be more appropriate.