Accounting for ecosystem services to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo Credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) “The Páramo ecosystem of southwestern Colombia”

This post originally appeared on Sense & Sustainability on December 9, 2015.

When 193 world leaders gathered in New York this last September to agree on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, fittingly entitled “Transforming Our World“, the atmosphere was one of celebration and great optimism. After all, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and 169 targets) that are included in the new Agenda have been developed under conditions that are much different from those that led to adoption of the Millennium Development Goals back in 2000, when the latter were criticized due to the absence of a clear action plan, lack of previously defined means of implementation and monitoring, and the largely arbitrary set of challenges they sought to address.

First of all, the comprehensive, far-reaching commitments enshrined in “Transforming Our World” logically required a huge amount of preliminary groundwork and behind-the-scenes bargaining that in turn allowed the draft agreement to be in place well in advance of the Sustainable Development Summit. In addition, the entire process was punctuated by increased emphasis on the urgency to mobilize the financial, institutional and technological resources needed to implement the SDGs and establish an effective monitoring framework, as shown by the inclusion of a specific goal concerned with the revitalization of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (Goal 17), the endorsement of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, and the colossal work on data and indicators that is being put forth by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators. Finally, the SDGs themselves have the ambition to be indivisible, that is, to acknowledge that economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability can not to be pursued in isolation if mankind is to embark on a sustainable development trajectory; and universal, as the burden of their implementation (as well as the risks of a failure) will clearly fall upon the international community as a whole.

In this perspective, it is important for countries to set their priorities straight right from the outset, making sure that none of the goals is left behind even when geographical disparities and different capabilities will inevitably lead to uneven progress in their achievement. As a matter of fact, although some commentators have already argued that we shall only focus on those measures which will prove more cost-effective in the face of limited resources, the creation of fragmented pathways for the implementation of the SDGs would actually undermine the entire process, and the separation of social and environmental targets in particular would prove disastrous in the long-term.

The problem here is the same that led Goal 7 of the MDGs, which was tasked with ‘ensuring environmental sustainability’, to become one of the greatest failures of that agenda: it is way more difficult to convince governments and communities to invest in the protection of ecosystems and adopt policies that regulate the exploitation of natural resources than it is to tackle extreme poverty and advance human rights, where progress apparently yields more visible -and immediate- results.

Think of biological diversity, for example. Target 7.B of the MDGs explicitly recognized in 2000 that a surge in protected areas was needed to preserve ecosystems, species of flora and fauna that inhabit them, and their contribution to human societies. Yet that target, which the vast majority of countries had in the meantime pledged to achieve by 2010 by committing to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, still remains largely unmet. Should this be of some concern to us, if the meantime we lift people out of poverty and create more opportunities for developing countries?

The long-eluded answer to this question is a simple one: it should, because without halting biodiversity loss and safeguarding the integrity of the biosphere we actually won’t be able to do the latter. Indeed, while it is very common (and legitimate) to reduce the question of conservation to one of compassion towards living beings, our relationship with nature is one of (inter)dependence, not stewardship. Through their complex structure and functioning, ecological systems are in fact the building blocks upon which societies have developed since human beings first appeared. Discounting their value is a sure way for policy-makers to neglect the contribution of such systems to the well-being not just of future generations, but of present ones as well. In other words, it is due time we move towards a systematic accounting of ecosystem services and integrate it into national and local policies and processes.

This is not a new idea at all. Broadly defined as the direct and indirect benefits that ecological systems provide to humanity annually, ecosystem services have been conceptualized and assessed by researchers for several years now, even if there is still much to do in terms of refining methodologies and overcoming scientific uncertainty. In 1997, for instance, a seminal study led by ecological economist Robert Costanza estimated that US $33 trillion per year is the average value of these renewable goods and services (most of which are directly related to the role of living organisms within their ecosystem, such as nutrient cycling, pollination, biological control, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, and so on), and that figure was recently raised to US $125-145 trillion per year when Costanza used updated data to revise his own assessment. The same paper also hypothesized that the global loss of ecosystem services caused by land use change may already be costing somewhere between US $4.3-20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used.

Yet, countries have so far been reluctant to incorporate this way of thinking into their development and poverty reduction strategies, planning processes, national accounting, and reporting systems, as mandated in 2010 by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Even if some examples of local and national policies, whether resulting in the appointment of specific advisory bodies (like the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee) or the establishment of partnerships with organizations and programs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, indeed point in this direction, achieving the SDGs will necessarily require more than that, and will especially entail placing biodiversity into the mainstream framework for decision-making through an unprecedented focus on the role of data for sustainable development.

In order to do so, accounting for the flow of ecosystem services at the global, national, and local level must become a central concern for the implementation of Goals 14 and 15 of the new Agenda. Adopting Target 15.9, which essentially reiterates Target 2 of the Aichi Targets, was one first step. Making sure that the indicators proposed within the umbrella of the Inter-agency Expert Group keep track of the number of national plans and processes that integrate the values of biodiversity and ecosystems (although there was no agreement over this point during the latest meeting of the Group) will be another. The most important role, however, is going to be played by international platforms like the newly-established IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which will be tasked with strengthening science-policy interfaces and building capacity for the effective use of science in decision-making at all relevant levels: without their contribution, and the necessary willingness on the part of countries to participate in such processes, renewable natural capital will continue to decline at an alarming rate, and the likely consequences for human well-being of are all but certain to be dire.


  • Costanza, R et al., ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystems and Natural Capital’ 387 Nature 253
  • Costanza, R et al., ‘Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services’ (2014) 26 Global Environmental Change 152
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends (Washington DC: Island Press, 2005)

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