Home page » Guide » 3. Implementing the ecosystem approach » What is the ecosystem approach?

What is the ecosystem approach?

The ecosystem approach is a way of making decisions in order to manage our activities sustainably. It recognises that humans are part of the ecosystem and that our activities both affect the ecosystem and depend on it (see Box 2). The ecosystem approach requires:

  • An integrated approach that considers all ecosystem components (e.g. human activities, habitats and species, and physical processes).
  • Consideration of ecosystem functions and resulting ecosystem services (see Box 3).
  • Strong participation of stakeholders (see Box 4).

Previous work on the ecosystem approach has tended to focus on the first two elements; this guide focuses on stakeholder participation.

Box 2: Definitions of the ecosystem approach

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines the ecosystem approach as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable wayi.

In the marine environment, ICES defines it as “the comprehensive integrated management of human activities based on best available scientific knowledge about the ecosystem and its dynamics, in order to identify and take action on influences which are critical to the health of the marine ecosystems, thereby achieving sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services and maintenance of ecosystem integrityii.

Traditional management approaches have tended to be sectoral, considering individual ecosystem components in isolation. This has often led to poor decisions, conflict over space and resources, environmental degradation and economic losses. In contrast, the ecosystem approach considers our activities as part of a single system where all sectors are integrated, allowing the wider consequences of decisions to be determined and managed.

Box 3: Concept and definition of ecosystem services

Ecosystem services are the means by which ecosystems provide benefits to people. In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessmentiii  undertook the largest ever scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide. In the UK, a National Ecosystem Assessmentiv  was completed in 2011 providing a comprehensive appraisal of the ecosystem services in UK waters.

In marine environments (such as the Celtic Sea), ecosystem services can be separated into four main types: ‘provisioning services’ (e.g. harvesting of fish, shellfish and algae); ‘regulating services’ (e.g. regulation of climate, wastes and water quality); ‘cultural services’ (e.g. recreational, cultural and spiritual benefits); and ‘supporting services’ (e.g. nutrient cycling, marine habitats that support fisheries).

Ecosystem services are the foundation for our economic prosperity and well-being – yet human activities are degrading ecosystems at such a rate that their ability to continue to provide these services is in jeopardy. Globally, the degradation of our planet’s ecosystems could be costing us €50 billion each year.v

In the past, important ecosystem services have been undervalued: they may be hard to measure, or fall outside conventional economic markets. However, there is growing recognition that we need to factor the multiple services natural systems provide into our decision-making – to get the most economic and social benefit and avoid the costly consequences of damaging them.

The ecosystem approach calls for strong stakeholder participation – involving all those who have an interest in, or could be affected by, decision-making. This is crucial, not least because the ecosystem approach is about managing human activities. People are much more likely to act upon a decision and change their behaviour if they understand and accept the basis on which it was made. This is far more likely with full and active participation.


  1. i.   Convention on Biological Diversity (2000) COP 5 Decision V/6 The ecosystem approach.
  2. ii.   ICES (2005) Guidance on the Application of the Ecosystem Approach to Management of Human Activities in the European Marine Environment, ICES Cooperative Research Report, No. 273. 22 pp.
  3. iii.   Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington. 155 pp.
  4. iv.   UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Technical Report. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge. 1466 pp.
  5. v.   TEEB (2010) The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature: A synthesis of the approach, conclusions and recommendations of TEEB.

Download the PISCES Guide

Download the PISCES Guide

Also available in: