A quantitative review of ecosystem service studies: approaches, shortcomings and the road ahead

Ecosystem services are defined as the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems. Employing the ecosystem service concept is intended to support the development of policies and instruments that integrate social, economic and ecological perspectives. In recent years, this concept has become the paradigm of ecosystem management. The prolific use of the term ‘ecosystem services’ in scientific studies has given rise to concerns about its arbitrary application.

Figure: Geographical distribution of case studies in the review using colour coding that reflects the number of ecosystem service case studies per country. The size of the countries reflects the total sum of the value of the ecosystem service. The value of the ecosystem services includes terrestrial as well as marine ecosystem services, which is the reason for the huge size of “countries” such as Antarctica or Greenland. To provide a consistent data base, we included nine studies focusing on marine ecosystem services. The inset shows a scatter-plot of the countries regarding their relative contribution to the cumulative number of case studies and the cumulative value of the ecosystem services.

A quantitative review of recent literature shows the diversity of approaches and uncovers a lack of consistent methodology. Synthesizing the results from our review, we propose that researchers consider four broad issues that summarise the holistic perspective of the ecosystem services concept: (i) ensure biophysical realism of ecosystem indicators and models; (ii) consideration of local trade-offs; (iii) recognition off-site effects; and (iv) ensure implementation of management options by comprehensive stakeholder involvement. Based on these four facets we discuss excellent examples in scientific papers and provide guidelines for consistency in applications of the ecosystem service concept as well as the credibility of results, which in turn can make it easier to generalise from the numerous individual studies.

Figure: Percentage of the studies (weighted by the number of ecosystem services in each article that belong to the specified factor level) that belong to the specified factor level. The factor level ‘Other’ refers to cases in which insufficient information to assign the article to a factor was given in the article. The factor levels for scenarios are p = political, b = behavioural, d = demographic and c = climate change.

Further information

Detailled information are available in the following publication:
Seppelt, R., Dormann, C.F., Eppink, F.V., Lautenbach, S. and Schmidt, S. (2011): A quantitative review of ecosystem service studies: approaches, shortcomings and the road ahead. Journal of Applied Ecology 48 (3): 630-636.
Online available: January 26, 2011, DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01952.x.
Analysis results are available as WMS service. Detailled information about the Review of Ecosystem Services web service is available in the GLUES Metadata catalog.