In October 2015, the U.S. Executive Offices of the President—the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy—released a memo, “Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making,” that directed federal agencies to develop work plans and implementation guidance by the end of 2016. But many practical questions remain about how ecosystem services can most effectively be used in decision making. This policy brief explores how to achieve consistency in the use of ecosystem services, primarily in terms of which ecosystem services are selected for assessment and how they are quantified. An initial idea for promoting consistency might be to require all decision makers to consider a common set of ecosystem services, each with a pre-defined metric. Although this strategy might seem logical, it may not provide relevant or useful information for decision makers because even fairly constrained categories of these services—say those for maintaining air and water quality, managing water quantity, and reducing risks from fire, storms, and droughts—when further refined break up into many more services that are defined by who is affected and how they are affected. For example, a water quality management issue results in a change in water quality for downstream stakeholders—which can alter services such as municipal water supplies, irrigation, fishing, swimming, and so on. Each of these services involves different stakeholder populations or beneficiaries. Moreover, each of these services might be more or less relevant in different contexts or regions. The ecosystem services that should be considered in a particular decision depend on the ecosystem type, the attributes and qualities of that ecosystem, the ways in which surrounding human communities use or appreciate the ecosystem, vulnerabilities and characteristics of those communities, and the preferences and values of human beneficiaries in different areas and policy contexts. They also depend on the temporal and spatial scale of the project, plan, program, or policy under consideration. Consequently, achieving consistency in the selection of ecosystem services to be considered is a complex task, as is achieving consistency in quantification of those services across decision contexts.
Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions