Inclusionary practices in the seeding and communication of ecosystem service valuations

Inclusionary practices in the seeding and communication of ecosystem service valuations

Caroline Hobbs, MEM1


Quantitatively valuing natural capital, which can be understood as the valuation of benefits provided by ecosystem function to humans, is increasingly recognized as a powerful decision making tool in political, development, and management planning. Valuations increase the accuracy of cost benefit analyses used to manage and utilize resources for human activities, by creating a basis of comparison that aims to be widely recognized and respected. Furthermore, the research efforts that go into valuing natural capital allow us to better understand natural functioning and the potential for terrestrial, coastal, and aquatic ecosystems to provide resources that support human existence. It is less often that natural capital valuation is appreciated for its potential to shed light on humans’ relationship with nature, its layering with and of complex value systems, and its potential to reinforce, separate and connect value across and within networks and communities.

A History

The relationship between nature and the concept of value are deeply intertwined, and have been indirectly understood in the context of one another for centuries and arguably for all of human existence. Monetization of this value began formally in the 1970s with the framing of ecosystem functions as beneficial services to humans, in order to contribute to conservation efforts (Westman 1977, Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981, de Groot 1987, Gómez-Baggethun 2010). With the development of global scale valuation methodologies (Costanza 1997) and excitement around the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2003), this relationship has evolved into economic valuation systems to inform policy and management (Costanza and Daly 1992, Perrings et al. 1992, Daily 1997). Payments for Ecosystem Services and other market-based instruments, which contribute to the monetization and commodification of ecosystems and their functioning (Sanchez-Azofeifa 2007) are a recent progression of this field. These tools have been a major policy focus in country’s commitments to the Paris Agreement in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and in their work on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The evolution of ecosystem service valuation (ESV) has brought to light two main areas of current contingency. First, in the detachment of large scale of valuation processes from an individual’s relationship to and part in nature. Global scale valuations have been argued to detract from potential local scale management benefits, and simultaneously praised for communicating ESV to audiences previously unreached and for creating a sense of shared responsibility for resource use and natural processes that play out on a global scale. Those directly affected by management decisions informed by ESV have not historically been involved in valuation processes. And the trade-offs and complexity of value systems within a community are rarely appreciated (Tilman et al. 2002, Rodriguez et al. 2006, Raudsepp-Hearne et al. 2010, Ring et al. 2010, Hauck et al. 2013).

Second, the long term socio-psychological implications of our use of market-based mechanisms in addressing issues of resource use and allocation remain unaddressed. Some would argue that market-based approaches to resource management improve overall well-being, while others still argue that these approaches might be to the detriment of the important conceptualization of humans as, not separate from, but a part of the natural systems they live within (Schmitz, 2017). Many have expressed concern that a utilitarian framing of ecosystem service functions and market-based mechanisms for conservation efforts are contributing to a conceptualization and evolution of understanding of nature that will be counterproductive to conservation efforts in the long run (Rees 1998, Martínez-Alier 2002, Robertson 2004, McCauley 2006, Soma 2006, Gómez-Baggethun 2010, Kosoy and Corbera 2010). We see this divergence in the difference in Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement in Costa Rica, a leader in institutionalizing these instruments, compared to Bolivia, a leader in opposition to market mechanisms.

Rather than discarding valuation as a tool, there are several ways it could be used to bridge the gaps that have historically polarized it. These concerns may be addressed by a more holistic and intentional valuation process that is standardized yet appropriately scalable, accessible, co-developed, and transparent.

Natural Capital: A network of value systems

The valuation of natural capital and use of ecosystem service valuations in policy, management, and development decision-making processes is an inspiring intersection of quantitative and qualitative research methods, academic interest, and practical application. The process of natural capital valuation has the potential to bridge local–global gaps and engage communities in an inclusive and equitable manner, contributing to socially sound complex adaptive management practices.

Successful development and execution of natural capital research has many layers:

1. Seeded by the community that will be affected by the management decision it is informing
  1. Of appropriate scale, and

  2. Community-based dialogue being a key precursor to study

A community’s sense of efficacy in the development, management, and governing processes of an area increases the likelihood of compliance with management stipulations or regulations imposed on that area, for example, Marine Protected Areas with no-take zones. This layer includes thoughtful consideration of the scale of a project. Smaller or localized scales create more potential for individuals to identify with the project and be included in the valuation. Larger scales can be more effective in communicating to communities indirectly involved but less accurate in the valuation itself. Integrating scales and being explicit and transparent about the scale of a project and the purpose it is informing can bridge scales and increase compliance and impact rates.

2. Interdisciplinary in nature, and incorporates both quantitative and qualitative research methods
  1. Standardized data collection and presentation.

Ecosystem service valuations focused solely on monetary value of exported resources are important but cannot wholly represent a community or individual’s value system, given the immeasurable significance of a given land area or water body to different stakeholders and people. This does not have to be a barrier to entry for ESV or a discrepancy that de-legitimizes the entirety of ESV for a population. Rather, the profound spiritual, cultural, religious, and inherent significance of a given area should be duly noted and communicated in tandem with an ESV via qualitative research and presentation. A standardized platform for communication of this data (in various formats) is imperative for the adequate representation of ecosystem significance in decision-making processes. A strengthened methodology and platform for sharing and collection of such information would benefit peacebuilding and consensus building in management decision-making.

3. Effective communication to the affected and target audience/s
  1. Open access data,

  2. Transparency in reports by NGOs and presentation of data by governments,

  3. Adaptive: feedback channels and potential for improvement/expansion of study.

Effective communication in this case means a platform for information sharing and analysis that is open access. In particular, the platform should be easily accessible to those individuals affected by management decisions that incorporate informartion from this platform. There should be a clear delineation of the information used in decision making processes. Information should be conveyed through verbal, visual, and interactive means. Reports presented by NGOs and governments should link clearly to the research supporting them. Furthermore, this information should be adaptive, which may take the form of feedback channels to allow space for commentary on a study and potential for the study’s improvement and expansion. A problem faced by this layer is that the adaptive nature of a study may impair the standardization and clarity of other scales of communication.

4. Acknowledgement of synergies and trade-offs in how stakeholders value ecosystem services
  1. How individuals’ values diverge, and

  2. How divergent values of currency and resources affect the equity of trade schemes.

Explicit inclusion of ecosystem services in decision making, reporting, and policy demands careful attention be paid to the synergies and trade-offs experienced by and between stakeholders in their relationships to ecosystem services. A comprehensive exploration, attention to detail and openness to expanding knowledge of these perceptions and dynamics on varying scales (although difficult to pull apart in many cases) can allow policies and communication tools that use ecosystem services to be most effective.

It is key to consider and account for in some way, the difference in value of one dollar in different places in the world. This value discrepancy perpetuates inequality in global trading schemes. Therefore a globally recognized value of a given area disproportionately represents its worth. Addressing this is complicated, but one option is to weigh values based on who will be using a given valuation, who will be importing a resource, and who has rights to the land or water area from which a resource is being extracted.


This field is quickly growing, changing, and shows significant promise. Moving forward in the field we need a standardized yet multiplicative framework and flexible platform for valuations that is widely respected and can be easily utilized. This begins with coalition building around valuation. One such example is the ESMERALDA project (founded in 2015), which “aims to deliver a flexible methodology to provide the building blocks for pan-European and regional assessment of ecosystems and their services.” The Ecosystem Service Partnership (2014) is another example, aiming “to enhance communication, coordination and cooperation, and to build a strong network of individuals and organizations working on #ecosystemservices”. The Natural Capital Project (2012), a partnership between Stanford University, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Nature Conservancy, University of Minnesota, and Chinese Academy of Sciences, is “bringing the values of nature into decision-making”. International Spring University began developing Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services (ARIES) in 2007. ARIES “is a networked software technology that redefines ecosystem service assessment and valuation for decision making. Another software that has emerged is InVEST (which has come out of Woods Institute at Stanford and the Natural Capital Project), a program that “is both helping to address challenges and analyzing what impacts and cost-benefits exist for conservation efforts and watershed management.” Meanwhile WAVES, Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services, a World Bank-led global partnership, “aims to promote sustainable development by ensuring that natural resources are mainstreamed in development planning and national economic accounts”.

These programs could be improved by taking a more interdisciplinary approach, using multiple methods of valuation, being explicit about the scale and seeding of valuation projects, and by working to make their systems and data more accessible and easily communicated to divergent stakeholders. Their products and networks stand to benefit by maintaining the key layers outlined above to support holistic valuation processes and open communication. This may take the form of a cooperative effort to standardize and map qualitative valuation components in ARIES. WWF may be interested in co-developing the valuations with communities affected by them (for example, in reports such as Reviving the Ocean Economy), communicating their valuations more transparently, and working at more socially appropriate scales with the communities involved in the ecosystem service valuations they present. Similarly to ARIES, InVEST may incorporate qualitative data and make their software open source. Ideally these initiatives and others will evolve progressively together, filling their own niches while making space to cooperate and develop more holistic natural capital valuations that are mutually beneficial across a spectrum of value systems.


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  1. Caroline graduated from Yale F&ES in May with a Masters in Environmental Management focused on Marine Ecology and Environmental Communications. She has worked on coral restoration and community ecology projects with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute and aided in efforts to breed ‘’super corals’’ at Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. On the communications side, Caroline directed finances for the Environmental Film Festival at Yale in 2018 and has worked closely with UN Women and Gender constituency to the UNFCCC and the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute to promote transparency in negotiations and space for standardized carbon accounting at the COP22 and COP23. Caroline hopes to continue her work as a coral biologist and environmental communicator in the experiential education realm aiming to foster inclusivity and space for creative expression in all she does.

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