Understanding perceptions of ecosystem services and natural capital accounting
Working on an MSc Environmental Sciences in TCD, Elizabeth Quinn-Sheridan conducted research into attitudes to the natural capital approach and ecosystem services via data gathered from online surveys and engagement at stakeholder workshops in the Irish catchments where INCASE is piloting natural capital accounting. Elizabeth writes:
Natural capital accounting endeavours to address environmental degradation by framing components of the natural world as assets which need conscious management. This provides a means for the natural world to be better integrated into influential political and economic spheres for more environmentally conscious decision-making.
Ecosystems produce a range of vital services that support human wellbeing, known as ecosystem services, which are grouped under supporting, regulating, provisioning, and cultural services. A key part of natural capital accounting involves identifying priority ecosystem services for inclusion in accounts.
This research project aimed to engage stakeholders from both within and outside the four INCASE test catchments through an online survey and stakeholder workshops to assess their prioritisation of and opinions on ecosystem services and natural capital. Understanding perceptions towards ecosystem services is important in identifying the key services for inclusion in natural capital accounts and can help inform accounting efforts at national scale in the future.
INCASE stakeholders included members of local environmental groups, county councils, Teagasc, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, local anglers and farmers, and members of Natural Capital Ireland, and were engaged with through online workshops and a survey. A total of 80 INCASE stakeholders responded to the survey in which they were asked to rank 21 ecosystem services in order of importance to them, along with questions relating to their understanding and opinions of natural capital and ecosystem services.
The following is a list of key trends that emerged from the data.
Prioritised services There was a general consensus that the majority of ecosystem services were relatively important to stakeholders as all services provided for ranking received highly positive responses. Water supply and purification, pollination, river flood mitigation, global climate regulation, ecosystem and species appreciation, and educational, scientific and research services were identified as most important to survey respondents. Water supply/regulation, climate regulation, and pollination are also prioritised by the INCASE team and in similar Irish and international research, suggesting these services are important throughout wider stakeholder groups and particularly vital for inclusion in natural capital accounts. Water-related services emerged as significant within and outside the catchments. Other Irish research relating to water resources also suggests that water-related services are valued by a wider pool of stakeholders throughout the country. Natural capital accounts for both England and the Netherlands also include water-related and carbon sequestration services.
Prioritisation of regulating and provisioning services differed based on whether respondents were from within or outside the catchments, whereas cultural services were similarly prioritised throughout the two groups. It seems that when faced with prioritisation of regulating and provisioning services, stakeholders tended to think locally, while cultural services appeared to be thought of on a wider scale. Regulating and provisioning results may be due to the diversity across the catchment and non-catchment regions, with stakeholders perhaps prioritising the services which are most prevalent in their localities. With regards to cultural services, results indicated that location may not have influenced stakeholder perception. This could be due to the intangible nature of cultural services.
Understanding of Ecosystem Services
Stakeholders generally had a solid understanding and awareness of ecosystem services and natural capital/natural capital accounting. However, most respondents found the terminology surrounding these concepts to be confusing. According to the survey results, attending the INCASE stakeholder workshops improved understanding of these concepts, with respondents indicating they would be interested in learning more about these subjects.
More widespread, accessible educational campaigns on these topics could be valuable for encouraging understanding of and involvement in the natural capital accounting process and may even lead to increased collaboration in updating and maintaining natural capital accounts. Further education on these topics can also empower communities to conserve natural capital in their locality and work with local authorities to inform better land management decisions.
Language emerged as a main theme throughout all stakeholder workshops. Concerns were voiced that non-expert audiences would not have an in-depth understanding of ecosystem services and natural capital/natural capital accounting concepts and the terminology associated with them. This means it may be difficult for members of the public and local stakeholders to effectively engage with ecosystem management and protection due to lack of awareness and understanding. The need for a common language that communicates these concepts to non-expert audiences was considered a priority area.
Environmental concerns, particularly water quality-related ones, were also raised in all catchment workshops, which further highlights the need to protect and conserve our natural water bodies and resources. The practical application of natural capital accounting was also brought up throughout the workshops, with stakeholders questioning how data collected and compiled for natural capital accounts can be effectively utilised in addressing environmental issues.
Research has helped to reveal the key ecosystem services for inclusion in natural capital accounts according to catchment and non-catchment stakeholders. This information has allowed us to gain a more holistic overview of priority services and a broader perspective on the understanding of natural capital and ecosystem services. Alongside this, the study has shown that stakeholder engagement is useful to gather information as well as raise awareness about how different ecosystem services contribute to benefits at catchment scale.
It has also illustrated the importance of integrating stakeholder insights into the research process for natural capital accounting as relevant points relating to the practical application of natural capital accounting and issues surrounding language and terminology were highlighted. Moving forward, more engagement and education in relation to these topics may enhance understanding of and support for natural capital accounting and increase awareness of the significant role that ecosystem services play in maintaining human wellbeing.
This research formed the basis of my MSc Environmental Science dissertation. Going into this project, I was unsure what to expect from the results but given the importance of good water quality, it was not surprising that water supply and purification were viewed so highly. Initially, I anticipated that provisioning services would be more important across the board but upon hearing stakeholder opinions in the workshops, I soon realised the significance of regulating services for helping to mitigate the various environmental concerns in the catchments. In-person workshops on location would have been fantastic for meeting the locals and getting a better impression of the catchments.
However, I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the online workshops and would like to sincerely thank the members of the INCASE project team, stakeholders, and members of Natural Capital Ireland who took the time to help with this research project.