Why we need to value our ecosystem services


A recent report  The Value of Land: Prosperous lands and positive rewards through sustainable land management published 15th September by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative (ELD) estimates the value of ecosystem services lost worldwide due to land degradation at a staggering US $6.3 trillion to $10.6 trillion annually, or the equivalent of 10-17% of global GDP.  The report goes further to say that the effects of land degradation and desertification are distributed unevenly throughout the human populations, and often impact the most vulnerable – the rural poor – who largely depend on land for both sustenance and income.

It is estimated that currently one third of the world’s arable land has been affected by degradation – decreased vegetation cover and increased soil erosion – and desertification, the reports states.  Currently, some 52% of world agricultural land is moderately or severely degraded.  Furthermore, land degradation impacts the soils ability to store carbon, thereby contributing to climate change.  In fact, after fossil fuel combustion, agriculture and land use change combined form the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, says the report.  To understand and quantify the far-reaching impacts of land degradation the ELD initiative advocates a “total economic valuation inclusive of all land and land-based ecosystem services.”

Ecosystems services provided by land resources such as food, water, medicinal resources, pollution purification, soil formation, provision of clean air and spiritual and aesthetic benefits are of fundamental importance to human well-being, health, livelihoods and survival. The current value of ecosystem services is more than twice the size of the world’s global GDP.  Estimates of the global value of the worlds ecosystem services – assuming all were functioning at 100% – came in at USD 145 trillion/yr. in 2014.  However changes to land-use over the past 20 years has knocked considerable value off the precious resource and current value is dropping by USD $4.3 -20 trillion/yr.

To help combat land degradation member states at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012 developed the concept of Land degradation Neutrality (LDN), a key topic in the ELD report.  LDN can be understood “as a state where the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases.”  To achieve LDN, the report advocates the adoption of sustainable land management (SLM) approaches –“practices that serve to maintain ecological resilience and the stability of ecosystems indefinitely, while providing sustenance and diverse livelihoods for humans.”  Using a cost benefit analysis termed the 6+1 step approach the ELD experts assessed the value of ecosystem services provided by land resources at global, regional, national and local scales to help identify the benefits of SLM. A range of case studies verify the value of ecosystem services showing that the benefits gleaned from them far outweighs the cost of preventing land degradation or the cost of remediation in most situations. The report indicates that effectively addressing land degradation could add an additional $75.6 trillion to world income annually.

Later chapters of the report address the importance, of providing an ‘enabling environment’ i.e. the correct instruments and mechanisms to enable the adoption of SLM; for example, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) Schemes, Ecolabelling of products, and microfinancing schemes. To be successful the incentive system must be flexible and respond to changes in policy and environment overtime.  Furthermore, the report highlights the importance of engaging with a diverse variety of stakeholder groups to ensure that any barriers which may hinder the adoption of SLM systems are identified, discussed and addressed.

Migration caused by land degradation is another subject touched upon in the report.  A publication from the UN’s Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) states that 50 million people are at risk of displacement in the next 10 years if degradation continues unchecked. An article also published this month, Migration in Response to Environmental Change from Science for Environmental Policy of the European Commission, presents some key pieces of research which examine the causes of environmental driven migration and identify policy change for Europe in dealing with an influx of migrants.  The current state of human rights of environmental migrants is also discussed as is the possibility of adaptation plans that will help communities affected by climate change become more resilient.  The report says “Extreme or sudden environmental events and more long-term changes linked to climate change represent what is possibly the most significant future global policy challenge.”  With the current migrant crisis facing the EU, this topic feels particularly pertinent.  At a recent meeting of the European commission Jean-Claude Junker declared,

“Climate change is even one the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly”

Wrapping up the extensive report, which was four years in the making, the ELD expert’s emphasize the need for nations to recognise the value of SLM and of addressing the issue of land degradation.  They highlight the importance of knowledge and capacity building and the development of appropriate national policy, economic, legislative and regulatory frameworks.

“Ensuring the implementation of more sustainable land management is of critical importance considering the vast environmental and socio-economic challenges we are collectively facing – from food, water, and energy security and malnutrition, to climate change, a burgeoning global population, and reduction in biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services.” says the report

Release of the ELD report coincides with two important and related events this year, the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a proposed set of targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and political policies over the next 15 years.  The SDGs build on the earlier Millennium Development Goals which were agreed by governments in 2001 and are due to expire at the end of this year.  The aims of the ELD initiative are echoed throughout numerous goals of the SDG, in particular goal 15, “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”  Indeed, the outcomes of the ELD initiative will provide a valuable resource in the achievement of the SDGs.  In addition, this year marks the International year of soils (IYS). Organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the IYS aims to “increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.” The ELD report states “On a global scale, the annual loss of 75 billion tons of soil from arable land has been estimated to cost the world about US $400 billion per year.” This loss of soil can have catastrophic effects on crop yields.

The ELD report will be launched at numerous international events throughout September 2015. During this period you can follow responses to the report on Twitter @ELD_Initiative and #ELDsolutions

Further information is available to subscribers of CABI’s Environmental Impact Database, with over 150 records on land degradation and sustainable land management.


ELD Initiative (2015). The value of land: Prosperous lands and positive rewards through sustainable land management. Available from

Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S. J., Kubiszewski, I., Faber, S., & Turner, R. K. (2014). Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change. 26, 152-158.

ELD Initiative (2015). ELD Initiative User Guide: A 6+1 step approach to assess the economics of land management. GIZ: Bonn, Germany. Available from

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). (2012). Desertification: a visual synthesis. Bonn, Germany: UNCCD.

Science for Environment Policy (2015) Migration in response to environmental change Thematic Issue 51. Issue produced for the European Commission DG Environment by the Science Communication Unit, UWE, Bristol. Available at:

Further reading:

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). (2015). Reaping the rewards: Financing land degradation neutrality. Bonn, Germany: UNCCD.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis. A report on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Institute for the Advancement of Sustainability Studies (IASS). (2015). Grounding the post-2015 development agenda: Options for the protection of our precious soil and land resources. Policy Brief presented at Global Soil Week, Berlin, 2015. Potsdam, Germany: IASS.

Reed, M.S., Stringer, L.C., Fazey, I., Evely, A.C., & Kruijsen, J. (2014). Five principles for the practice of knowledge exchange in environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management, 146: 337–345.

ELD Initiative. (2013). The rewards of investing in sustainable land management. Scientific Interim Report for the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative: A global strategy for sustainable land management. Available from:

Akhtar-Schuster, M., Thomas, R.J., Stringer, L.C.,Chasek, P., & Seely, M. (2011). Improving the enabling environment to combat land degradation: Institutional, financial, legal and science-policy challenges and solutions. Land Degradation & Development, 22: 299–312.

United Nations Conven ion to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). (2012). Zero net land degradation. A sustainable development goal for Rio+20. UNCCD Secretariat Policy Brief. UNCCD: Bonn, Germany.

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