Ecosystem services

Guidance for policy and decision makers on using an ecosystems approach and valuing ecosystem services.

This guidance was withdrawn on

This guidance is out of date. See current guidance on Enabling a natural capital approach.


The UK National Ecosystem Assessment provided the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and our continuing economic prosperity.

Its findings indicate that ecosystems and ecosystem services, and the ways people benefit from them, have changed markedly in the past 60 years, driven by changes in society.

It also cites that the UK’s ecosystems are delivering some services well, but others are still in long-term decline.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment follow on was published in 2014. It provided further analysis of the cultural and economic value of nature and developed a range of tools and methods to assist decision-makers wishing to apply an ecosystems approach.

Using an ecosystems approach

An ecosystems approach provides a framework for looking at whole ecosystems in decision making, and for valuing the ecosystem services they provide, to ensure that society can maintain a healthy and resilient natural environment now and for future generations.

An ecosystems approach is a way of looking at the natural environment throughout your decision making process that helps you to think about the way that the natural environment works as a system. In doing so you will also be thinking about the spatial scale of your interactions with the natural environment, the range of constraints and limits at play and the people involved in supplying and receiving ecosystem services and benefits. Carrying out economic valuation of the ecosystem services involved will help you to incorporate the value of the natural environment in your decision.

Valuing ecosystem services

Defra have produced an introductory guide to help government officials make a start on valuing the benefits society is getting from ecosystem services they have identified as important to a policy or decision.

Assessing the general environmental impact of policy options is a key part of appraisal. It is now possible to make more sophisticated assessments of the costs to society from damage to our natural assets and benefits from managing them well. HM Treasury’s Green Book recommends including environmental effects in cost-benefit analysis to inform appraisal of policy and project options. The Green Book guidance draws on Defra’s ecosystem valuation guidance.

Environmental valuation look-up tool

Defra has developed a “look-up” tool, for analysts and decision-makers, which provides indicative monetary values for environmental effects. Such values are appropriate for first-cut, quick analysis of the effect on the environment, or secondary effects that might otherwise be overlooked. The unit values in the tool are based on a review of over 350 UK valuation studies. The look-up values can also provide the basis for more detailed value transfer methods.

Value transfer

Value transfer refers to the use of existing economic valuation evidence in a new policy appraisal context. We have produced detailed practical guidelines which will assist economists, policy analysts, scientists and other technical experts understand and present evidence on the environmental impacts of proposed policies and projects for decision making.

The Environmental Valuation Reference Inventory

The Environmental Valuation Reference Inventory (EVRI) is an international searchable storehouse of empirical studies on the economic value of environmental benefits and human health effects. Including user-friendly summaries of around 380 UK valuation studies, it is a key source for value transfer in economic appraisal.

The EVRI database and search facilities are freely available to UK residents.

Non-monetary and participatory valuation

Participatory and deliberative techniques are tools available to unlock stakeholder values, experiences and insights about the management of ecosystem services across the whole decision making cycle.

  • General guidelines - provide an introduction to participatory and deliberative techniques and are designed for decision makers involved in policy making and delivery.

  • Supplementary guidelines for policy makers and an analytical audience including economists and social researchers.

Research and case studies

There is a growing body of evidence and research on the importance of the natural environment to society and using an ecosystems approach.

Landmark studies

  • The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
    The first global study on the state of the natural environment and the benefits it gives to society in terms of ecosystem services.
  • The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA)
    The first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity.
  • The Countryside Survey
    Largely funded by Defra and NERC. A long term study of the natural resources of the UK’s The first analysis of the UK’s countryside. The survey has been carried out at regular intervals since 1978 and helped to inform the UK NEA. A land cover map of the most recent survey was published in July 2011.

Defra research programme

The key findings of two phases of Defra research into ecosystem services thinking and application have been brought together in a synthesis report.

We have completed a range of research projects on the areas below as well as putting the theory into practice in a number of case studies.

Valuation of ecosystem services

Environmental limits

Availability of data relating to ecosytems and ecosystem services

Application of an ecosystems approach for policy development

Indicators and targets relating to the natural environment

Identifying future pressures on the environment

Payment for Ecosystem Services

Case studies

Defra funded case-studies

Value transfer case studies

The case studies below demonstrate a range of approaches to value transfer, including ‘low’ to ‘high’ effort applications. They also cover a range of policy contexts, sectors and changes in provision of market and non-market goods.

Reporting in each case study includes some detailed explanations of assumptions and approaches to aid the understanding of the reader. In a practical value transfer application, analysts will not necessarily need to replicate this level of exposition.

Updates to this page

Published 9 April 2013
Last updated 12 November 2014 + show all updates
  1. Added section about green book and EVRI. Added some PES pilots to list of research (NR0156).

  2. Link added to NE0144 - PES pilot: Cotswold Catchment

  3. Hyperlink added to Developing place based approaches for payments for ecosystem services under Payment for Ecosystem services

  4. Added links to new best practice guide, action plan and pilot research reports.

  5. First published.

Sign up for emails or print this page