Tools: Applications, Benefits and Limitations for Ecosystems (TABLES)

This project forms part of the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) follow-on project. The 2011 UK NEA delivered a wealth of information on the state, value (economic and social) and possible future of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems across the UK, but also identified a number of key uncertainties.


Alister Scott

Research background

The follow-on phase further develops and promotes the arguments that the UK NEA put forward and makes them applicable to decision and policy making at a range of spatial scales across the UK to a range of stakeholders. The follow-on phase consists of 10 work packages and is funded by Research Councils UK, DEFRA and the Welsh Government.

Professor Alister Scott led two of the work packages (9 and 10) worth some £200,000. This work focuses specifically on integrating the principles and thinking behind the ecosystem approach and ecosystem services into the development, adaptation and testing of existing tools to improve policy and decision-making processes. This is achieved by our team (of academics, policy and practice representatives) working with case study partners throughout all phases of the project.

The TABLES project was nominated for the Royal Town Planning Institute's 2014 Awards for Planning Excellence.

Find out more and access the project resources


UK National Ecosystem Assessment (download)

UK National Ecosystem Assessment follow-on (download)

Key Messages

The Ecosystem Approach provides an important but often overlooked strategic framework within which an Ecosystem Services Framework can be used to embed nature more effectively into policy and decision-making processes.

The 12 principles of the Ecosystem Approach [1] are currently used in policy and decision-making in a piecemeal fashion hindering the effective development of policy and decisions in complex resource management interventions. Within our case study assessments we found certain principles consistently overlooked; subsidiarity (Principle 2), limits and thresholds (Principle 6) and long termism (Principle 8) whilst others, such as ecosystem services (Principle 5) and economic drivers (Principle 4) were universally encountered.

By designing operational guidance, adapting all 12 principles of the Ecosystem Approach, within the stages of a policy cycle model (IDEAS-SURVEY-ASSESS-PLAN-ACT-EVALUATE) where desired actions are linked with possible tool responses, we can improve significantly the quality of planning and decision-making processes and outcomes. In particular, we identify the need for decision makers, to invest more in the IDEAS, DELIVER and EVALUATE stages within any policy, plan, project or programme (PPPP) process.

Policy and decision making tools

There is a confusing range of tools available to support policy and decision-making. Thus improved guidance is needed to help users evaluate which combination of tools are best suited to a given situation, how they should be used and when they should be used.

Making sense of the diversity and complexity of tools poses a significant challenge, often exceeding the time-capacity of decision-makers. A functional tool typology serves as our starting point to identify an accessible and integrated suite of tools judged both to have high impact in policy and decision-making processes and suitability for adaptation to incorporate an Ecosystem Services Framework.

From over 30 tools reviewed our final suite comprises:

  • Regulatory (Strategic Environmental Assessment; Environmental Impact Assessment)
  • Incentives (Payments for Ecosystem Services*)
  • Valuation (Corporate Ecosystem Valuation*; Cost Benefit Analysis)
  • Futures (including Visioning, Backcasting and Scenarios)
  • Ecosystem services [2] (Ecosystem Assessment; Ecosystem Mapping including SCCAN).

In association with the guidance optimal outcomes are achieved when this suite of tools is used in combination to address a given task; in particular working across the different types within our tool typology rather than using one type, e.g. regulatory, in isolation. Furthermore, some integrative tools such as Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment necessarily involve the use of multiple tools for their successful implementation.

Engaging stakeholders

Stakeholders have different needs and different understandings of the scope and significance of the Ecosystem Approach which require the identification of ‘hooks’ for effective engagement. In the ecosystem sciences’ literature we often found uncritical use of terms such as the Ecosystem Approach, Ecosystems Assessment, Ecosystem Services Framework and Ecosystem Services Approach [3].

These terms are alien and confusing to many potential user groups. Thus we need to improve definitional and functional clarity of the ecosystem ‘lexicon’. Rather than rushing to use a multitude of new terms communication needs to be set within the particular cultural context, territory, terms and language that key audiences commonly experience and use.

In response, we adopted the use of a simple, commonly identifiable, policy/decision-making cycle (IDEAS-SURVEY-ASSESS-PLAN-ACT-EVALUATE), into which we then embedded our guidance. Both generic and distinctive ‘hooks’ were identified to engage user communities; those involved in business, community development and in the built and natural environment.

Using nature to engage with stakeholders

A shift from a traditional view of nature as a constraint to economic growth to an asset producing multiple benefits for society provides a powerful initial hook to engage with different stakeholders.

There are important regulatory hooks under the EU Directives (e.g. Water Framework, Strategic Environment Assessment; Environmental Impact Assessment, Habitats and Birds). Hooks within English legislation include the Natural Environmental White Paper with its cross-governmental sign-up; the Localism Act 2011; the Public Services (Social Values) Act 2012 and the National Planning Policy Framework.

For Scotland the principal hooks are through the Land Use Strategy (2011) and the emerging National Planning Framework 3 (Ambition Opportunity Place Scottish Government, 2013), whilst in Wales the hooks are through their unique statutory duty towards sustainable development and the White Paper consultation ‘Towards the Sustainable Management of Wales’ Natural Resources’ as part of the Living Wales Programme (Welsh Government, 2013).

Significantly, the use of ecosystem services provides a much more positive framework within which regulation can be implemented. Incentives can encourage behaviour change responses within these more positive views of the environment as an asset particularly within new market instruments such as Payments for Ecosystem Services.

Engaging different sectors in different ways

Different sectors have particular hooks which allow the Ecosystem Approach and Ecosystem Services Framework to be more effectively mainstreamed in policy and decision-making processes.

For business interests, the hooks revolve around their pressure to identify risks and to focus on new business opportunities, often set within environmental management systems and corporate social responsibility.

For the built environment sector, EU Directives (Impact Assessments and Water Framework) together with the National Planning Policy Framework, provide key starting points.

For local authorities, the Duty to Co-operate under the Localism Act 2011 provides a hook for wider engagement in local plan-making where ecosystem services in one administrative area frequently supply consumers, or provide benefits, in another area.

For local communities the Localism Act and the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 provide important hooks, set within asset transfer, community ownership and management goals. And the wider green agenda points up the need for more equitable and transparent approaches to climate change mitigation and greenspace management.

In the natural environment sector there are the existing statutory hooks such as EU Directives and national legislation; of particular current significance are Biodiversity 2020 and the Natural Environment White Paper.

Using the framework to improve outcomes

Using the Ecosystem Approach and Ecosystem Services Framework to inform the preliminary stages of policy and decision making processes is highly recommended for improved outcomes. In particular, the IDEAS and SURVEY stages of the policy cycle provide a baseline from which evidence is then assessed and used in subsequent PPPPs, allowing different trade-offs to be identified and assessed.

For this to be done properly in any PPPP, it is important to identify different pathways or policy options in the IDEAS stage which are then carried through to ASSESSMENT resulting in a preferred option. Our experience is that this is rarely done except where it is mandatory as for example in Strategic Environmental Assessment processes.

Case studies - mainstreaming ecosystem thinking

Our case studies of good practice illuminate different and pragmatic responses towards mainstreaming ecosystem thinking into policy and decision-making.

This project recognised four distinctive approaches to the way mainstreaming efforts are being pursued in our case study and tool examples: Retrofit, Incremental, Ecosystem Services-led, and Ecosystem Approach-led. These reflect increasing strength of mainstreaming processes suggesting that a social learning process may allow progression along this spectrum with evolving confidence and capacity.

Crucially each model does not carry a value judgement of what is the best approach in any specific circumstance; rather the full spectrum reflect the pragmatic nature of what can be achieved given the political and cultural context within which such thinking is being applied.

  • Retrofit enables the Ecosystem Services Framework to be retrospectively applied to existing PPPPs, enabling the concept to be incorporated through an action plan or review procedure for example.
  • The incremental approach incorporates such thinking as a pragmatic bolt-on within existing PPPP processes, with often minor but incremental changes occurring over time.
  • The ecosystem services-led model embeds ecosystem services into the IDEAS and SURVEY stages, normally as part of an ecosystem assessment process and ideally goes beyond selective cherry picking of ecosystem services incorporating an Ecosystem Services Framework.
  • The Ecosystem Approach-led model embeds all 12 principles into the initial stages of PPPP process but is rare in UK practice as commonly only certain principles are utilised. Natural Resources Wales provides an exceptional case study within the UK context.
Using the Ecosystem Approach provides important added-value to conventional decision and policy making models
  • The process of using the Ecosystem Approach has encouraged communities and business providers to begin to realise that the environment represents an opportunity space for providing multiple benefits supporting growth, development and quality of life. At the same time it also introduces a reality check through explicit attention to thresholds and a more holistic approach to policy/decision making.
  • The Ecosystem Approach can provide a clear set of common principles for the sustainable management of land and water, but only if translated and adapted to the setting in which it is located, together with the meaning and value of market and non-market goods and services for society.
  • Many ecosystems services are generated across administrative boundaries, thus consideration of service flows can facilitate genuine landscape-scale approaches. For example, the consideration of benefits and opportunities implicit when applying ecosystem services can help to create better maps of linkages and dependencies (e.g. flood mitigation by investment in upstream land management).
  • Creating markets for undervalued ecosystem services can help to support conservation projects, through strong partnerships based on supplier and vendor relationships within new flows of private investment (e.g. Payments for Ecosystem Services).
  • New partnerships can emerge when the Ecosystem Approach highlights the need for innovation to manage trade-offs (such as between food production through intensive agriculture and water quality/biodiversity).
  • The Ecosystem Approach provides evidence-enhancing communication about the importance of the natural world to sectors, institutions and actors which are usually not involved (and sometimes not interested) in environmental issues.

[1] 1 The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choices; 2 Management should be decentralized to the lowest appropriate level; 3 Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems; 4 There is usually a need to understand and manage the ecosystem in an economic context; 5 Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach; 6 Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning; 7 The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales; 8 Recognizing the varying temporal scales and lag-effects that characterize ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term; 9 Management must recognize the change is inevitable. 10 The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity; 11 The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices; 12 The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.

[2] *represent tools that also fall into the ecosystem services categories.

[3] This term is actually a corruption from the Ecosystem Approach and Ecosystem Services Framework and is therefore academically redundant. However its use is still widespread.

Research outputs

Briefing paper for TABLES project meeting, 11 October 2012, Birmingham

Summary Workshop Report - 11 October 2012