Ecological Services, Ecological Economics: Looking at the Sustainable Development Agenda


All of the seventeen SDGs have a common underlying factor – they are all dependent on natural resources. This importance finally given to the environment and natural resources comes a little late. The complete dependence of human existence on the environment and natural resources is reflected in the SDG Agenda, which places natural resources as the underlying driving factor behind all seventeen goals. The importance thus denoted to our natural environment is ‘too little too late’. The SDGs build up on the Millennium Development Goals, which also had a commendable agenda and targets set, few of which were actually met. Between 2000-2015, due to the haphazard management and implementation of the MDGs, the situation actually worsened in some areas.

An Ecological Economics Perspective

The SDGs, picking up and dusting off the failures of the MDGs reorient their agenda to urgently address the most pressing and inescapable issues. The Agenda is focused on action on climate change, sustainable production, growth and consumption so that the environment, which is our provider, is not sucked dry before the next generation of people come along. The SDGs also work on the principle that sustainable development is the responsibility of all – the developed, the developing and the least developed. While making provisions to encourage financial support from the developed to the developing, the planning and implementation of sustainable and environment friendly policies, strategies and action plans falls entirely on each individual nation. The coming of the SDGs finally marks the realisation amongst leaders of the world that the whole world is connected and must be seen as a single unit, for environmentally destructive policies or actions in one corner of the world don’t remain isolated in that corner. Their consequences spread to every other corner in a ripple effect. An earthquake with its epicentre in Indonesia can cause a tsunami of destructive proportions off the coast of India. Increasing greenhouse and carbon emissions in North America can cause the Himalayan glaciers to melt at an unprecedented rate, causing floods in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Right now, there is no proper predictability mechanism which can tell us the boundaries of and the effects a person or community’s actions can have on others. The SDGs thus finally acknowledge the fact that human existence and human action is not in isolation, but has a deep impact on other humans, other living beings, and the environment. The SDG Agenda thus works with addressing environmental concerns as the broad base sphere, intrinsically linked with social needs and economic activity (as opposed to all other agendas before this).

At the apex of this pyramid, or right at the centre of this functionality, and intrinsic to its proper and successful functioning is the basis of global partnerships, global exchange of resources – be it technology, knowledge, financial, etc. Goal 17, the final goal, aims at revitalising global partnerships for sustainable development.

The problem of climate change and environmental concerns remains a wicked problem as the trade-off appears to be between that of exclusive development and growth vs. inclusive development and environmental sustainability, between efficiency and equity. However, most policies and growth plans fail to give due credence to the value of ecological services. Ecosystem services range from providing basic life support necessary for survival, such as, the provision of fresh water on/below the ground, oxygen in the atmosphere, climate control for the planet, the regulation of water by forests, stratospheric ozone shield, etc. The value of these services is infinite, but the price attached to them is zero. Ecosystem services also contribute to the economy – sourcing of raw materials and energy from nature, basic needs (water, fuel, fiber, fodder, sanitation, waste treatment) and livelihoods (agriculture, mini industries, crafts), food and medicines, removal of waste, environmental balance. Ecosystem services also contribute to the economy through adventure sports and recreation, eco-tourism, jewellery, etc.

Quantifying Ecological Services

In 2000, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corp, Govt. of Australia estimated the annual value of pollination to be US $ 1.3 Billion. It is noteworthy that 35% of human food comes from plants pollinated by wild pollinators. The Ecological Society of America estimated the price of pollination in the USA to be $ 5.7 – 8.3 Billion and the value of crops to be $ 24 Billion. In 2000, the replacement of chemical pesticides (would save money and lives) was valued at US $ 54 Billion per annum, and this does not include the health costs saved. Forty percent of pharmaceuticals are derived from natural products, and in 2003, the sales of pharmaceuticals were valued at US $ 480 Billion. In 1999, the global value of ecological services was estimated at US $ 33 Trillion (with the range being from US $ 16 – 54 Trillion). This estimation was done by eighteen international economists from the US, Netherlands and Argentina (published by Nature). The global GDP for 1999 was approximately US $ 20 Trillion. The estimation of the value of the ecological services was taken by accounting for the value of coastal zones, open ocean, wetlands, forests, lakes/rivers and other miscellaneous. This doesn’t even cover the entire range of services provided by our ecosystem.

The Shift in Perspective

The ratification of the SDGs marks the acceptance of, if only in a limited manner, a shift in thinking. This shift is at the level of surveying, quantification and qualification of data, policy planning and strategizing and dissemination of that knowledge. This shift can be portrayed through the flowcharts below.

In conventional efforts to quantify and evaluate economic activity, the modelling and quantification took into account only the human social and economic interventions, entirely ignoring and disregarding the provision of valuable services by nature and the environment. This method of quantification is an indicator of the nature of production and consumption, as being entirely heedless of the environment which makes that activity possible. The chart below shows a shift inthis view. The shift is an inclusive one, where economic activity can’t be seen independent of the ecosystem services that provide and sustain that activity.

“A natural area will receive protection only if the value a society assigns to services provided in its natural state is higher than the value the society assigns to converting it to a more direct human use”

-Wright Environmental Science

In this approach of ecological economics, it is essential to develop local and specific indicators and targets with regard to the broader goals of the SDGs. A universal norm will not be effective and cannot account for the extremely diverse and intricately specific provisions and requirements of a country like India.


The effects of industrialisation, urbanisation and climate change are felt all the more strongly in India through fluctuations in the monsoon patterns, hotter longer summers, colder shorter winters, water stress, droughts and floods occurring simultaneously in different parts of the country. In a country which is largely dependent on the monsoon for its agricultural production and activities, these shifts have a large social, economic and political impact on the nation as a whole. The NITI Aayog is the coordinating agency for SDG Agenda in India. Since India is a diverse country with specific needs and a limited resource base, the preliminary role of the NITI Aayog is to coordinate data collection between the MoSPI and other nodal Ministries such as MoEFCC, DST and others. The coordination also extends to the Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS), including the ‘core of the core’, ’core’ and ‘optional’ schemes being implemented by the State Governments. This includes the State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCCs) that each state has to develop based on its regional and local conditions and requirements. The Niti Aayog has presently collaborated with RIS and other organisations such as WWF to hold National Consultations with the concerned Ministries on forming targets and indicators. This is a collaborative effort on part of Niti Aayog to remove the Ministerial and Departmental silos and bring a more cohesive framework for the sustainable growth agenda. Ecosystem services are a combination of natural resource and human effort, and thus, the human social and economic domain forms an integral part of the calculation of ecosystem services.

In the model shown below, ecosystem services are placed between natural and human systems. It identifies the benefits for people following from goods and services delivered by ecosystems while separating the benefits and values. It clearly indicates that ecosystem services stem from ecological structures and processes and from their functions within ecosystems. The quantification and modelling of ecosystem services is challenging. “In assessing trade-offs between alternative uses of ecosystems, the total bundle of ecosystem services provided by different conversion and management states should be included. Economic assessment should be spatially and temporally explicit at scales meaningful for policy formation or interventions, inherently acknowledging that both ecological functioning and economic values are contextual, anthropocentric, individual-based and time specific.”

There is a very delicate balance between different services produced within an ecosystem, the inter-relations between all of them and the degree of these inter-relations interact in a complex manner. Therefore, there is a trade-off between a single ecosystem service provision and other ecosystem services. This tradeoff is illustrated by Braat and Brink (2208) in the graph.

As the figure illustrates, with increasing degradation of the ecosystem (low biodiversity), the regulatory services gradually drop. These include water, air, climate, etc. Similarly, recreational and cultural services (tourism, etc.) also decline with a degrading biodiversity. Recreation benefits can be optimised in ecosystems with light use as these also provide a basic degree of accessibility and infrastructure. With regard to provisioning services, such as agriculture, gross output is maximised through intensive land use while net output will be lower.

An Expert Panel from the GoI in 2013 valued the Nation’s forests at US $ 1.6 Trillion. Mangroves in Gujarat, in 2007, were valued at INR 7,700 crores (Hirway, I., & Goswami, S., 2007), and Gujarat is one of the weaker mangrove belts in the country. The urban and rural unit value of vultures is at INR 6.9 and 5.8 Lakhs respectively (IUCN Study) and the value of six tiger reserves in India is placed at INR 1,49,900 crores (IIFT, Bhopal, 2015). The following map shows the increase/decrease in forest cover between 2009 and 2011 in India. As per the India State of Forest Report, 2011, released by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) on February 7, 2011, India’s total forest cover is now at 6,92,027 sq km. There has been a loss of 367 sq km of forest cover between 2009-2011.

The Way Forward

The biggest challenges that presents itself within the Indian context are the lack of indicators and gaps in defining relevant indicators, major gaps in data, lack of statistical data, ministerial and departmental silos, lack of financial resources, lack of political will and corruption. Another roadblock that presents itself is the gap in technical skills required for data analytics and research. While the government has issued innumerable schemes, yojanas and programmes, there are no frameworks for monitoring, progress, accountability and ownership. This results in a large paper trail with nothing to show on ground. The work required to achieve the SDGs is huge, and on all scales, and it requires effort from all levels of government. In order to move forward progressively, a basic requirement is the five ‘C’s – Coherence, Convention, Coordination, Capital and Convergence. This is across Departments, Ministries, organisations and local, state and the central government. Policy making and implementation needs to be approached in a holistic inter-sectoral manner by seeing the dependencies of each aspect of human life – social and economic, as dependent on each other and largely on the environment. One cannot be addressed in isolation, and even if it is, it will not stand the test of time even in the short term. For sustainable growth, development, production and consumption, and most importantly a healthy and productive environment, for these to reach our future generations; a cohesive, inclusive, convergent and sustainable policy that is followed through is of the essence.

(Devika Singh is pursuing the Master’s Programme in Public Policy at National Law School of India University. She can be reached at


SNRD Asia:

As presented by Dr. Ashok Khosla in ’Ecosystem Services and Sustainable Development: Economic Implications of SDG 15’ during the National SDG consultation at WWF – Delhi on February 8th, 2017

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