By Liz Rauer

To achieve sustainability, we need to be able to monitor our planet’s health and respond accordingly. A new study led by Heather Tallis, lead scientist at the Natural Capital Project and co-authored by researchers including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Harold Mooney proposes a way to monitor ecosystem services on a global scale.

Published in the November issue of BioScience, the paper outlines a framework to integrate national statistics, numerical models, remote sensing and in situ measurements to regularly track changes in ecosystem services across the globe. It includes a tangible plan to coordinate, standardize and broaden access to existing databases that track and monitor the delivery of ecosystem services. If implemented, it would inform local, regional, and global research and decisions related to the environment and society.

Earth’s life-support systems are changing, as is their ability to provide services such as clean air and water. Currently there is no centralized system to monitor and report these changes. Increasing environmental pressures around the world underscores the urgency to devise centralized methods of monitoring the changes in services nature provides to society.

The concept the researchers describe builds upon a framework envisioned by the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON) Ecosystem Services Working Group. Tallis is head of the working group and most of the study’s co-authors are members. The report’s proposed framework focuses on coordinating the reporting of temporal and spatial patterns in the production, delivery and value of global ecosystem services. It coordinates and combines data streams, identifies gaps in information systems and proposes consistent frameworks of benefit analysis. This scheme of metrics for monitoring ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity is a pioneering step in the effort to take global stock of our planet’s life-support systems.

The researchers call for standardized metrics of ecosystem services that separately account for the biophysical supply of a resource, the service it provides and its social benefits and value. These metrics will enable analysts to account for ecosystem benefits that economic markets currently fail to capture. For example, traditional valuation approaches do not incorporate the benefits of improved air and water quality or climate regulation because nature provides them as public goods. Similarly, economic benefits of agricultural crop production might exclude the nutritional benefits provided to the world’s poorest individuals, who may not pay for food through a formal market.

Systematic data collection and monitoring of ecosystem services will require unprecedented international cooperation among scientists and pooling of data at varying scales. While the framework emphasizes data at the national scale, it also calls for the inclusion of local scale field-based observations. In combination with calibrated data from remote sensors on global land-use and numerical models to simulate biophysical processes, a complete monitoring system will be able to inform local, regional, and global research and decisions related to the environment and society.


Media Contact

Elizabeth Rauer

Communications Manager

Natural Capital Project