Conservation biologists and environmental economists popularized ecosystem services as a governance concept in the 1990s. The concept, it was hoped, would valorize biodiversity conservation to place it on a level playing field with the economic concerns of the world's finance ministers and private sector. Has this valorization promise been realized within the international community? We examine this question by interrogating a constructed dataset of 272 international activities undertaken by international actors (e.g. non-governmental organizations, inter-governmental organizations, and other international organizations) that invoke or use the ecosystem services concept. We find that ecosystem service practice is dominated by capacity-building not the valuation of nature. This suggests that the international community is not extensively using the concept to value nature in order to inform governance decisions. We posit that budget and management pressures facing international organizations along with priorities of countries help explain the dominance of capacity-building. But we also suggest that a deeper understanding of the concept of ecosystem services – particularly its implied programme of action – is necessary to account for its unfulfilled promise to date. We close with implications from this study for broader work on global environmental governance.
- Nature provides services to humans (such as cleaning air and water, providing food, and buffering against disasters). The international policy community has experimented with economic valuation of these ‘ecosystem services’ to promote conversation.
- This valorization promise has not been realized. The concept is widely used as a framing device but there has been little uptake of valuation (let alone payment instruments) among international actors. Capacity-building via toolkits and awareness-raising mechanisms is the most common type of activity.
- This underperformance and the dominance of capacity-building is explained by bureaucratic factors, state preferences, and the technical complexity of the concept.
- Policy makers ought to think less about adopting a specific tool, like ecosystem services, and more about the context and time in which a policy tool is being proposed, and how and whether a specific tool is likely to create transformational change, given the structure of the problem being tackled. An approach that involves ecosystem services may help achieve conservation goals in certain contexts – particularly where there are constituents that are ready and willing to take up the idea and put it into action. But that requires concrete resources – both physical (money) and intellectual (know how) – without which capacity building is unlikely to be helpful, as our analysis suggests.