Graeme AuldIn a newly published article in Global Policy, Professor Graeme Auld teamed up with colleagues to examine the uptake of the ecosystem services as a governance concept informing efforts to conserve global biodiversity. Ecosystem services is an idea that offered a way to think about valuing nature in terms of the “services” provided to humanity, much like the services bought and sold in markets. For some, reframing conservation in terms of valued ecosystem services offered hope that biodiversity conservation would gain greater attention and priority in the decisions of policymakers around the world.

The article’s analysis traces the origins and spread of this idea in the work of the international community through the construction of a dataset of 272 ecosystem-services related activities carried out by international actors. The findings show that the idea of ecosystem services has been a useful framing device to align biodiversity conservation with market thinking. But practical uptake has been more limited. Valuing and paying for these services has gained much less ground than continuous efforts to build capacity in the hopes that ecosystem services can be measured and valued in the future.

Why the gap between the allure of the framing and the practical uptake and effects in changing behavior that matter for conservation? The paper suggests that bureaucratic constraints and state preferences are partially responsible. But that the skew of international actors’ work towards capacity-building and away from valuation and payments also reflects the extensive data and sophisticated valuation techniques that the concept of ecosystem services requires. These features make the concept administratively burdensome and challenging to implement, and they create the perception of a continual need for capacity-building.

Allan, J.I., Auld, G., Cadman, T. & Stevenson, H. (2021) Comparative Fortunes of Ecosystem Services as an International Governance Concept. Global Policy, 00, e13036. Available from:


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.