What is an environmental service?

By Henry Phillippe Ibanes de Novion, biologist

An environmental service is nature’s capacity to provide quality of life and comfort – that is, to ensure that life as we know it exists in a quality form for everyone (pure air, clean and accessible water, fertile soils, forests rich in biodiversity, nutritious and abundant foods, and so on). In other words, nature works (provides services) for the maintenance of life and its processes: these services performed by nature are described as environmental services.

The environmental services performed by nature provide products such as food crops, natural medicines, fibres, fuels, water, oxygen and so on, and ensure the proper functioning of natural systems such as climate control, water purification, rainfall cycles, climate balance, the oxygen we breathe, soil fertility and the recycling of the nutrients essential to agriculture, for example. In other words, environmental services are the activities, products and processes that nature provides us and that enable life as we know it to occur without larger costs to humanity. Other examples of environmental services are: the production of oxygen and the purification of the air by plants; the stabilization of climatic conditions, including the moderation of temperatures, rainfall, winds and tides; and the capacity to produce water and the equilibrium of the hydrological cycle with the control of floods and droughts. Such services also correspond to the flow of materials, energy and information from the stocks of natural capital.

Although they lack a set price, environmental services are extremely valuable to the well-being and very survival of humanity since human activities dependent on environmental services include, for example, agriculture (which requires fertile soils, pollination, rainfall, abundant water, etc.) and industry (which needs fuels, water, quality raw materials, etc.). How much work would it cost farmers to perform the service of pollination (which bees carry out for free), transporting the pollen to all the plants in their fields, plots and orchards? How much time and effort would be needed to transform all the organic matter existing in a forest into nutrients available for the plants if there were no beings in nature (decomposers) who do it for nothing? How many machines would be needed to perform the service of producing oxygen and purifying the air, a service that plants and algae carry out daily? What value can we place on these services performed by nature? They are worth the existence of life on the planet.

The continuation or maintenance of these services, essential to the survival of all Earth’s species, depends directly on environmental conservation and preservation, as well as practices that minimize the impacts of human actions on the environment.

Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, who have historically preserved the environment and used its resources and services in a conscious and sustainable form, are also responsible for providing these environmental services – in effect, they are providers of environmental services. By allowing the environment to maintain its natural characteristics and to continue to supply environmental services, these peoples and communities guarantee the provision of environmental services that are used by everyone. These services of preserving nature and its characteristics, conserving biodiversity, and supplying high quality water (because they preserve the forests surrounding the headwaters and river shores) have a cost for indigenous peoples and traditional communities, a fact that prompted the discussion on mechanisms for repaying or compensating those who conserve and guarantee the provision of environmental services. And this remuneration is called an Environmental Service Payment.