In the last 15 years, conservation has shifted increasingly towards perspectives based on the instrumental value of nature, where what counts is what provides benefits to humans. The ecosystem services framework embraces this vision of nature through monetary valuation of the environment to correct market failures and government distortions that hinder efficient allocation of public goods, including goods and services provided by biodiversity and ecosystems. The popularity of this approach is reflected in different countries legislation; for instance, US, EU and UK have introduced economic criteria for comparing costs and benefits of environmental policies in protecting ecosystem services.
From an operational perspective, the ecosystem services framework requires ecologists to estimate how the supply of services is affected by changes in the functionality and/or the extent of ecosystems; and economists to identify how changes in the supply affect the flow of direct and indirect benefits to people. However, this approach may be simplistic when faced with the complexity of social-ecological systems. We investigated this for three different marine services: assimilative capacity of waste, coastal defense and renewable energy. We find that economic valuation could provide efficient and fair allocations in the case of assimilative capacity, but leads to social clashes between outputs generated by cost benefit analysis and citizens' expectation in the case of coastal defense. In the case of renewable energy, controversies can be generated by regulatory mechanisms that are not necessarily aligned with the interests of industry or important social groups. We conclude that there is a need to integrate perspectives arising from utilitarian allocation of resources with those involving legislation and communal values in order to reconcile conflicting interests and better sustain marine social-ecological systems.
- A social-ecological framework analyses three marine ecosystem services (ES).
- Assimilative capacity, coastal defence and renewable energy are object of study.
- The role of economics, regulation and civil society is debated for the three ES.
- Economics shows some axiomatic issues in guaranteeing the provision of these ES.
- Other institutions are required to enable social learning and conflicts resolution.