EU Science Hub

How to measure the condition of Europe's ecosystems?

Mar 20 2018

The recently published fifth MAES (Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services) report provides guidance to the EU and its Member States on how to assess the condition (or the state) of Europe's ecosystems.

The report integrates several recognised indicator frameworks to give the first ever comprehensive and consistent list of ecosystem indicators across terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Healthy ecosystems are the fundamental basis for a resilient society and a sustainable economy. Healthy soils underpin forestry and agricultural production. Besides their direct economic benefits, healthy forests are essential providers of many regulating ecosystem services. Healthy rivers and lakes provide abundant clean water, are habitats for fish and wildlife and provide recreation opportunities.

But how do we know if ecosystems are in good shape and can continue to provide these essential ecosystem services in a sustainable way?

In essence, we measure the condition of ecosystems in much the same way as a doctor examines your condition or health. Doctors typically measure your weight, your blood pressure and your heartbeat. They also ask if you smoke and if so, how much. Taken together, these indicators provide valuable information on your actual condition.

Of course we cannot measure the heartbeat of ecosystems but we can measure other properties. This report provides a set of indicators to measure the condition of 12 terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Most of the selected indicators measure the condition of a specific ecosystem. For instance, the share of urban green space in a city, the concentration of nitrogen or oxygen in rivers and lakes, and the spawning stock biomass of marine fish populations in coastal areas.

But the report also identifies indicators that can be used across different ecosystems. For instance, the conservation status of protected habitats and species, the amount of organic carbon in soils, the number of invasive alien species and the coverage of ecosystems by the Natura 2000 network of protected areas. These cross-cutting indicators are essential for an integrated ecosystem assessment.

This indicator framework is built to serve the biodiversity policy of the EU. It can be used to assess biodiversity targets against a baseline situation. However, it can also inform other policies with high socio-economic relevance, including the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a key component for integrating ecosystem services into decision-making and for impact assessment, in particular for policies which regulate the use of natural resources.