Newswise — Plentiful food, clean water and healthy air are among the most valuable and visible benefits of nature to people. This has reinforced the widespread, and increasingly controversial, belief that nature is mainly a source of services or commodities.

Writing today in the prestigious journal Science, 30 global experts associated with the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), including Dr Pierre Failler from the University of Portsmouth, have presented an innovative new approach: the idea of using all of nature’s contributions to people to inform policies and decisions.

‘Nature’s contributions to people’ refers to all the benefits that individuals, communities, societies, nations or humanity as a whole — in rural and urban settings — obtain from nature.

Previous policies about nature have been dominated by knowledge from the natural sciences and economics but largely excluded insights and tools from the social sciences, humanities and other worldviews.

This new inclusive framework demonstrates that culture is central to all of the links between people and nature and recognises other knowledge systems, for example those of local communities and indigenous peoples, much more than before. While nature provides a wide range of essential goods and services, such as food and flood protection, it also has rich social, cultural, spiritual and religious significance – which needs to be valued in policymaking as well.

Dr Failler, who is a Reader in Economics and Finance, said: “This will be a new framework for policy design regarding the environment, replacing the ecosystem services’ approach – popularised by the landmark 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It is a new way to address links between human and nature, such as in ecosystem valuation.

“This is an important evolution of and complement to the concept of ecosystem services. It is applicable to a wider range of policies tackling global issues including all the ones developed around the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, including zero hunger, clean water and sanitation and affordable and clean energy.”

Sir Robert Watson, IPBES Chair and former co-chair of the landmark 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, said: “Nature’s contributions to people are of critical importance to rich and poor in developed and developing countries alike. Nature underpins every person’s wellbeing and ambitions – from health and happiness to prosperity and security. People need to better understand the full value of nature to ensure its protection and sustainable use.”

Many people think about nature's benefits in terms of flows of money, or grains, or timber from ecosystems to them - the new approach allows for that, but it also provides space for those who have different understandings about their relationships with nature.

“Food is a great example,” said co-lead author Unai Pascual, Professor at the Basque Centre for Climate Change and the Basque Science Foundation in Spain. “We all receive food from nature and food security is a key aspect that has typically been included in policies and decisions around the world, often measured in the context of calories per day, biological processes and economic value, for example. But we know that food is so much more. It’s at the centre of cultural identities, art and basic human enjoyment. It is these kinds of non-material contributions from nature that the new approach seeks to represent and include in decisions about the way we relate with nature.”

One of the many applications of this new approach is its uptake in large-scale expert assessments and how these are conducted. Dr Failler contributed to the IPBES regional assessment summary for Africa, which can be viewed at:

Professor Pascual and co-author Sandra Díaz, Senior Researcher of CONICET and Professor at the National University of Córdoba, Argentina, argue that nature’s contributions to people is a scientific advancement embracing, but going beyond the ecosystem services approach, which will increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of policies and decisions about nature. “This inclusiveness and equity among knowledge systems and perspectives will not only make expert assessment processes more legitimate, it will also lead to better policy results because we will be drawing from a much richer and wider information base,” they said.

Four IPBES regional assessments ( of biodiversity and ecosystem services, expected to be released in March this year, have already included unprecedented efforts to tap indigenous and local knowledge, and nature’s contributions to people are already a central feature of the IPBES global assessment, expected in 2019.

Journal Link: Science 19 Jan 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6373, pp. 270-272 DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8826