IEA Training Manual - Module 5

5.2 Intermediate analysis: Identifying impacts using the concept of ecosystem services and human well-being

The basic analysis demonstrates that it is possible to identify impacts based on limited experience, knowledge and a basic understanding of sustainable development. A more detailed analytical framework, such as the one adopted in GEO-4 can facilitate identification of more specific impacts.

The GEO-4 framework used in Figure 13 describes aspects of human well-being that are affected by demographic, institutional and material factors. These aspects are, in turn, influenced by environmental factors: ecosystem services, non-ecosystem natural resources such as hydrocarbons, minerals and renewable energy 3, and stresses such as disease, radiation, pests and hazards.

Ecosystem services are benefits that people obtain from ecosystems, in the form of provisioning services, cultural services, and regulating and supporting services (Table 7).

Table 7: Examples of ecosystem services (from Millennium Ecosystem Assessment)

Category Service Description
Provisioning Food and fibre This includes the vast range of food products derived from plants, animals, and microbes.
  Fibre Materials such as wood, jute, hemp, silk, and many other products derived from ecosystems. 
  Fuel Wood, dung and other biological materials serve as sources of energy.
  Genetic resources This includes the genes and genetic information used for animal and plant breeding, and biotechnology.
  Biochemicals, natural chemicals and pharmaceuticals Many medicines, biocides, food additives such as alginates, and biological materials are derived from ecosystems.
  Ornamental resources Animal products, such as skins and shells, and flowers are used as ornaments, although the value of these resources is often culturally determined.
  Fresh water Fresh water is another example of linkages between categories - in this case, between provisioning and regulating services. 
Regulating Air quality maintenance Ecosystems both contribute chemicals to and extract chemicals from the atmosphere, influencing many aspects of air quality.
  Climate regulation Ecosystems influence climate both locally and globally. For example, at a local scale, changes in land cover can affect both temperature and precipitation. At the global scale, ecosystems
  play an important role in climate by either sequestering or emitting greenhouse gases. 
  Water regulation The timing and magnitude of runoff, flooding and aquifer recharge can be strongly influenced by changes in land cover, in particular alterations that change the water storage potential of the system, such as the conversion of wetlands or the replacement of forests with croplands or croplands with urban areas. 
  Erosion control Vegetative cover plays an important role in soil retention and the prevention of landslides.
  Water purification and waste treatment Ecosystems can be a source of impurities in fresh water, but also  can help to filter out and ecompose organic wastes introduced into inland waters and coastal and marine ecosystems. 
  Regulation of human diseases Changes in ecosystems can directly change the abundance of  human pathogens, such as holera, and can alter the abundance of disease vectors, such as mosquitoes.
  Biological control Ecosystem changes affect the prevalence of crop and livestock pests and diseases. 
  Pollination Ecosystem changes affect the distribution, abundance and effectiveness of pollinators. 
  Storm protection The presence of coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves and coral reefs, can dramatically reduce the damage caused by hurricanes or large waves. 
Cultural diversity Cultural diversity The diversity of ecosystems is one factor influencing the diversity of cultures.
  Spiritual and religious values Many religions attach spiritual and religious values to ecosystems or their components.
  Knowledge systems Ecosystems influence the types of knowledge systems developed by different cultures.
  Educational values Ecosystems and their components and processes provide the basis for both formal and informal education in many societies.
  Inspiration Ecosystems provide a rich source of inspiration for art, folklore, national symbols, architecture and advertising.
  Aesthetic values Many people find beauty or aesthetic value in various aspects of ecosystems, as reflected in the support for parks, “scenic drives” and the selection of housing locations.
  Social relations Ecosystems influence the types of social relations that are established in particular cultures. Fishing societies, for example, differ in many respects in their social relations from nomadic herding or agricultural societies.
  Sense of place Many people value the “sense of place” that is associated with recognized features of their environment, including aspects of the ecosystem.
  Cultural heritage values Many societies place high value on the maintenance of either historically important landscapes (cultural landscapes) or culturally significant species. 
  Recreation and ecotourism People often choose where to spend their leisure time based in  part on the characteristics of the natural or cultivated landscapes in a particular area. 
Supporting Supporting services are those that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services. These services differ from provisioning, regulating and cultural services in that their impacts on people are either indirect, or occur over a very long time, whereas changes in the other categories have relatively direct and short-term impacts on people.

Some examples of supporting services are primary production, production of atmospheric oxygen, soil formation and retention, nutrient cycling, water cycling and provisioning of habitat. 

To illustrate how impacts on various types of ecosystem services can be identified through an environmental state indicator, consider an example of water quality degradation in a lake. An indicator of water quality could be phosphorus concentration, Chlorophyll-A measurements, one of the parameters indicating trophic status of a lake, or aquatic plant counts.

Figure 15: Example of impacts on
ecosystem services due a change
in lake water quality.

For this hypothetical example, a change in an indicator could be linked to impacts to ecosystem services, as described in the figure below.

When the environmental factors change, for whatever reason, the individuals, communities and even economic sectors that depend on these factors are also affected in myriad ways. Depending on the environmental stress involved, the relative importance of impacts through changes in ecosystem services, non-ecosystem environmental assets or risks and hazards may change. In our previous example of water quality, several impact pathways could have been identified using the ecosystem services and human well-being framework (Figure 16).

Figure 16: Possible impact pathway
diagram for a change in lake water quality.

For example, natural gas is an asset with no direct ecosystem value in the sense that natural gas reserves without human intervention tend to be deep underground and not playing a role in ecological cycles. This role changes if and when gas reserves are exploited for human use. Once brought to the surface and utilized, natural gas creates both socio-economic dependencies and ecological imports. If availability of gas is reduced, human well-being is affected through functioning of socio-economic structures that rely on natural gas as an energy resource, and that have little immediate flexibility to shift to alternative energy sources. This is illustrated by the degree of political concerns related to the security of natural gas supply from Russia to other European countries during 2006-2007.

Case Example

Figure 17: 2001 Algal blooms in Lake
Winnipeg’s North Basin, Red River
Basin Case Study.
Source: McCullough 2001, in
Stainton and others 2003

Potential impacts due to increasing nutrient concentration in the Red River.

Increases in total nitrogen and phosphorus in the Red River, as previously described, can affect ecosystem services and human well-being in the Lake Winnipeg region. There is the fear that massive and rapid eutrophication of Lake Winnipeg will occur due to those changes in nutrient loads.

The ability of Lake Winnipeg to provide human food through fresh fish could be negatively affected because the numbers and composition of fish species will change under the high nutrient levels.

The impact on human well-being can be through changes to the livelihood of local fishers, degraded recreational opportunities and tourism revenue, as well as human health impacts through ingestion of water while swimming.

See Exercise 5.5.2

3  Non-ecosystem natural resources are assets with no directly vital ecosystem function but with significant value to human society. Availability of these resources has a significant impact on economic production and the ability of society to meet its material needs.


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- - 07 Mar 2012
Hi Jeff,I love the comments in this post, too! I think @Velchain is right on: The best neofereccns are the ones that have 2 or more concurrent sessions. How to find out what they are is the challenge to creating a vibrant ecosystem during the conference. I can think of a lot of ways to do that, but I mostly want to point out that the ecosystem (and I love that analogy) should incorporate both the pre-and post-conference conversation. I also thought about extending the conference, as mentioned by both you and @Velchain, but with another iteration: continue some of the conference sessions virtually. It's added value for the attendees (perception of an extra free session), and offers everyone the time to go home, chew over the information with colleagues and use the information, and come back together for a richer discussion in Round Two. @askdebra
Module 5 - Integrated analysis of environmental trends and policies
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