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Non-monetary valuation for ecosystem service protection

Ecosystem services ESS are co-productions of humans and ecosystems. Together they are providing the benefits humans derive from nature. Many services are at risk today, from natural and – more so – from human-made impacts. How to best analyse the process is disputed; some scholars use the conventional economic terminology and way of thinking to describe ESS as flows from a stock of natural capital, and the loss of biodiversity as an external cost which has to be internalised into the price system to end this ‘misallocation of resources’. Valuing ecosystems and their services in monetary terms is the most urgent task in this way of thinking. SERI does not subscribe to the neoclassical economics world view underpinning the capital stock approach and the monetisation of biodiversity, but suggests a multi-dimensional and transdisciplinary approach, in which monetary valuation plays a small but not irrelevant role. However, the multiplicity of values prevailing in our societies requires understanding the nature of value ( philosophy) before assessing the value of nature. We emphasise the role of agency and stakeholder participation ( stakeholder activation) and support a primacy of political decision making over market rules.


Ecosystem service provision is a process of co-production of humans and the environment, from the recognition of the usability of certain ecosystem elements and functions (we call it use value attribution, defining the ecosystem service potential) via the mobilisation of the potential to generate services, and on to the appropriation of services to generate benefits which can either be enjoyed, consumed or commercialised. In each of these steps human agency works on and transforms elements of nature – without understanding both natural processes on different levels and the economic, social and cultural factors influencing agency no effective protection of ecosystem service generation is possible. SERI supports a complexity recognising, post-normal approach to research, based on discourses and involving an extended peer community of stakeholders. We consider the environmental economics approach of monetisation and internalisation to identify an “optimal solution” as dangerously undercomplex. Instead we acknowledge the value pluralism of societies and the heterogeneous interests in all stakeholder groups and support discursive approaches to information gathering, facilitating mutual understanding and providing a basis for democratic decision making processes.

Policy relevance

Ecosystem services are essential for the functioning of human societies, from provisioning services (food, feed, raw material) via regulating services (climate mitigation, water cleaning and storage) to cultural services like knowledge, identity and sense of place. While political institutions on all levels, from the UN via the EU down to national and local governments have integrated the demand for ESS preservation into their objectives and demands, so far this has had little impact on real world decision making. ESS studies are largely ignored – rightly so, we say, as the frequent approach of expressing environmental qualities as monetary quantities is not helpful at best and dangerously misleading at worst. However, efforts to analyse ESS and the conditions for their provision in real world, policy relevant terms can help improve decision making by providing a more comprehensive information base. Decision makers demand multiple kinds of information, each in its own measurement units, from species at risk via employment effects and income contribution down to cost. They provide the basis for horizontal Multicriteria Assessments MCA not resulting in nominating one optimal solution but in presenting options which are judged differently by different stakeholders depending on their interests and value systems.

Specific contribution by SERI

SERI Germany staff has been working on multi-criteria valuation methods, conceptually and empirically. We conduct subjective value assessments by means of individual or group interviews and derive policy options (what to do) from them. These data on stakeholder views and preferences can be compared with objective data from statistics, measurements and modelling; the discrepancies provide essential information for choosing effective policy measures, be it regulations or financial measures (how to do it). As far as economic instruments are concerned, not calculating hypothetical prices (willingness to pay or accept, choice experiments) but identifying effective incentives, symbolic, material or financial, makes sure that politically defined objectives can be pursued.

Other areas of activity:


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SERI - Publication for "Ecosystem services"

Value pluralism and economic valuation – defendable if well done

Spangenberg, J.H., Settele, J.(2016)

in press