Ensuring that development projects benefit both people and the planet is becoming more and more of a priority.

Environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA) have been in use for decades to consider the effects of projects such as dams, highways, and oil and gas development. Over the years, ESIAs have evolved to cover both environmental and social impacts, including health and human rights.

However, the assessments often study social or environmental factors separately from one another, missing the many ways in which they interact.

In 2012, important financial institutions--the International Finance Corporation and the Equator Principles Financial Institutions--took a welcome step towards promoting a more holistic approach to impact assessment, requiring their clients to address ecosystem services as part of their due diligence.

Incorporating the concept of ecosystem services into ESIA can ensure that affected stakeholders, project developers, financial, and governmental institutions understand the full scope of a proposed project’s impacts on people and the environment. But as I recently learned at the annual conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) two weeks ago, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the concept of “ecosystem services” really means and how it can be applied to conducting impact assessments. It’s a good time to clear up confusion on this critically important yet complex issue.

What Are Ecosystem Services?

Ecosystems contribute to people’s well-being in many ways. For example, the Arctic’s tundra supports reindeer populations, which in turn provide food and income for hunters and their families. The tundra also has cultural value, contributing to various communities’ sense of identity.

The ways tundra supports people’s lives—or the way bees pollinate crops, or the way mangroves provide storm surge protection to coastal dwellings and multiple other benefits for people—all of these contributions from nature are known as “ecosystem services.” Damage to these ecosystems, either directly or indirectly, can have a real impact on people’s income and well-being. That’s why it’s so important for development projects to take ecosystem services into consideration to avoid many of the unintended consequences that development can bring.

How Can Incorporating Ecosystem Services Improve Impact Assessments?

Traditional ESIAs assess environmental and social impacts separately or with limited interdisciplinary analysis. Environmental and social practitioners focus on different issues and tend to use different criteria, methods, and even terminology in their analyses.

In reality, however, environmental and social impacts are inextricably linked. Ecosystem services by definition link people and their environment. An ecosystem service approach to ESIAs allows environmental and social practitioners to have a common focus and language.

Take the tundra example. Before implementing a project, environmental practitioners might look at its impact on the total reindeer population and find it to be relatively low. Addressing ecosystem services, however, focuses the assessment on reindeer populations in specific hunting grounds and how changes would affect hunters and their families.

Similarly, environmental practitioners might assess that the project would have a negligible impact on the overall condition of the tundra. An ecosystem service point of view, acknowledging the cultural and social value of the tundra, would reveal that even small-scale construction could damage a community’s ’ sense of place and belonging, given the premium their culture places on the wildness of their surroundings.

Assessing the project’s impacts on ecosystem services allows all stakeholders to understand how the hunters, their wives and families, and their larger communities might be affected by the project’s multi-faceted impacts on the tundra.

How Can We Better Integrate Ecosystem Services into the Impact Assessment Process?

It was encouraging to hear so many ESIA practitioners express interest in ecosystem services at the IAIA conference. Spreading the word is the first step to better incorporating ecosystem services into the countless impact assessments that are conducted every day around the world.

Much can be done to incorporate ecosystem services into impact assessments by increasing collaboration among social and environmental practitioners. But changing habits can be difficult. Impact assessment practitioners need guidance on how to integrate ecosystem services into their existing processes. To that end, WRI is currently working with ESIA practitioners on a methodology, the Ecosystem Services Review for Impact Assessment, which helps practitioners apply the concept of ecosystem services to the ESIA process.

The Ecosystem Services Review for Impact Assessment provides 6 steps to identify, assess and mitigate impacts on ecosystem services. An overview of the method will be published on WRI’s website later this year.