Nature offers a wealth of ecosystem services, i.e. all the material and immaterial benefits humans gain from nature. These include fresh air and oxygen, recreation, raw materials, paths, food, rain, clean drinking water, pollination, biological pest control, and soil. The many and varied processes of nature form the background to all of these.
Plants’ photosynthesis is necessary for all living creatures, as it provides us with clean air and nourishment. Forests and swamps filter carbon dioxide from the air, and, along with the seas, are major carbon sinks. Swampy and forested areas retain rainwater and reduce the risk of floods. At the same time they filter nutrients and solid matter from the water. Forests also provide free food and medicines.
Pollination is vital for the production of food, as it allows plants to produce seeds and fruit. Some plants are pollinated with the help of the wind, whilst others self-pollinate, but animals also play a major role in pollination. In Finland the most important pollinators are insects, such as honey bees, bumblebees, and butterflies. A reduction in the size of the honey bee population would have significant financial consequences.
Organisms that decompose soil, such as microbes and fungi are of great importance in the nutrient and carbon cycles. Decomposers transform dead organic matter back into a useable form. Some bacteria are able to make substances that are harmful to humans and nature harmless, thus contributing to the purification of soil.
Recreation services gained from nature are also important to peoples’ mental and physical wellbeing. Nature provides beautiful landscapes, soundscapes, scents, land for jogging, or even inspiration for amateur artists, musicians, and writers alike.
The diversity of nature is key to the preservation of these services. The different parts of an ecosystem are dependant on one another, which also makes them vulnerable to human activity. Factors which destroy ecosystems include the intensification of agriculture, urbanisation, soil pollution, climate change, and invasive species which compete with native species for living space. A lack of versatility in nature weakens its ability to provide services and recover from problems.
Ecosystem services can be grouped as follows:
- Provisioning Services provide the commodities we need from nature, such as food, water, and wood.
- Regulating Services regulate the climate, water levels, the build-up of groundwater, the decomposition of waste, and the spread of disease.
- Cultural Services are services which contribute to our physical and mental wellbeing, such as the landscape or recreational services.
- Supporting Services include the bases of growth and production: soil formation, photosynthesis, and the nutrient cycle.
Ecosystem services are usually taken for granted, and placing a financial value on them is challenging. The value of services provided by nature has not previously been taken into consideration in financial calculations, social decision making, or the planning of the use of natural resources. The concept of Ecosystem Services was created in order to allow for the realisation of nature’s financial value to society.