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A list of frequently asked questions about the ecosystem services reference book

  Classification of Ecosystem Services

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OpenNESS Synthesis Paper

Roy Haines-Young (University of Nottingham, United Kingdom)
Marion Potschin (University of Nottingham, United Kingdom)

   Introduction and ‘State-of-the-art’

The classification of ecosystem services is challenging both conceptually and technically (cf. Sokal, 1974). It is also urgently needed to facilitate the applications of the ideas in decision making (both policy and management) and (to some extent) in research.

The task of classification is conceptually challenging because the idea of ecosystem services is essentially a ‘boundary object’: it helps to transmit and coordinate thinking between disciplines even though there is no commonly accepted or precise definition of the term. It is useful precisely because it is vague and open to different interpretations. As a result, any common, agreed classification is difficult to achieve. Key definitional issues include:

  • Whether ecosystem services are benefits (cf. Costanza, 2008), or whether they are the contributions that ecosystem services make to well-being (via the benefits supported by a set of ‘final’ ecosystem services) (cf. Potschin and Haines-Young, 2011).
  • Whether ecosystem services are only those ecosystem service outputs that are dependent (to some extent) on living processes or whether they include pure abiotic outputs (e.g. wind and hydro power, salt, physical landscapes).

The design of any classification system is technically challenging because (apart from the lack of common definitions) there are a range of purposes or applications that have to be considered which have different requirements in terms of the levels of thematic and spatial resolution needed. Moreover, different disciplinary groups bring different concepts and framings to the table, so that convergence of terminology (and any agreed classification) is difficult. Examples of issues include:

  • Whether ecosystem ‘services’ and ecosystem ‘goods’ are synonymous or whether we make a distinction between them. For example the UK NEA ( argues that services are the final outputs and goods are the things that are valued in terms of the benefits they generate. Thus for a forest ecosystem ‘trees’ are final service and timber one of the ‘goods’ that are produced and which can be valued alongside, say, other non-timber forest products such as the ‘buffering capacity’ of woodlands against avalanche.
  • How we treat ecosystem services from artificial or semi-natural systems. In the revision of the System of Environmental and Economic Accounts (SEEA, 2012), cultivated crops in the field are not regarded as services – but products (goods); instead ‘nutrients and natural feed for cultivated biological resources’ in agro-ecosystems are proposed as final services.
  • The way we treat ecosystems services that include inputs from other types of capital (financial, manufactured, social, human etc.) is a major issue in the design of any classification system; the way we assess or quantify the contributions that ecosystems make to human well-being is often unclear.

Appendix 1 provides an overview of the revised Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) which has been designed to meet some of these challenges. The table also provides a comparison with the typologies used for the MA and TEEB. It is based on the recent document on the European working group on Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services (MAES, 2014), but has updated and reorganised the information to take account of the revisions suggested for CICES V4.3. Although CICES was initially designed to support environmental accounting (Haines-Young and Potschin, 2013) its hierarchical structure may also assist in mapping and assessment, and at different thematic and spatial scales.

It is not intended to replace other classifications but to enable cross comparisons to be more easily made. The hierarchical structure allows studies that are undertaken at different thematic and spatial resolutions to be more easily compared. At present it only deals with services that are dependent on living processes in some way, but it can be extended to cover the various abiotic outputs from natural systems (e.g. wave power) if required (see Appendix 2). However, we note the many arguments against this in terms of diverting attention away from the importance of living processes for sustaining human well-being.

   Significance for OpenNESS and specific work packages:

In general terms some standardisation of definitions and terminology would be helpful so that cross-comparisons of ecosystem outputs would be possible; it is also valuable in the context of many application areas, such as planning, where clarity is especially important. There is still the opportunity to develop and refine CICES, and so OpenNESS provides the opportunity to test and refine the classification so that it can be used more generally as we move towards operationalisation.

The need for some standardisation of terminology is important if we are to integrate discussions on regulatory frameworks (WP2), or with those dealing with the sustainable management of ecosystem services and biodiversity (WP3). Moreover, if we are to use the outputs from the valuation work (WP4) then common definitions and terminology would be essential if value information is to be transferred effectively between studies. Finally, it will be more difficult to generalise from the findings of the case studies (WP5) if we lack a way of cross-referencing their work. A refined and tested classification is likely to be a key element delivered by the ‘Common Platform’ as required as an output from OpenNESS by the Commission (WP6&7).


  1. Do the differences in classification approaches matter in terms of operationalising the concept? If there are barriers how do we overcome them?

The “WP1 brainstorming meeting” (Garmisch, Feb.2013) concluded that classification issues were important and that OpenNESS should address them; the classification problem is part and parcel of the conceptual framework being developed in WP1, but it needs to be practical in its orientation so that it can be used and tested across the work programme. The classification systems used need to be consistent with the key definitions captured in the OpenNESS conceptual framework; we recommend that a consistency check forms part of the first stages of the work.

  1. Do we need to think of several different classifications systems that in fact link together to provide a better read-across between ‘functions’, ‘services’ and ‘benefits’? For example the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) classification of beneficiaries is a useful adjunct to CICES and can help identify who uses what and where and for what purposes (Landers and Nahlik, 2013). Do we need classification systems at each interface across the cascade?

The brainstorming meeting concluded that the CICES system was a start, and recommend that it be used as a way of exploring issues initially. It was recognised, however, that probably several linked classification systems were needed in order to achieve full operationalisation. For example a classification of benefits and beneficiaries would probably be needed if we are to fully value services and link the outputs to any kind of accounting system, or measures of human well-being. Similarly systems for classifying underlying functions were needed, since these are poorly handled in some of the existing classification systems.


Clear and consistent definitions are an essential basis of any classification system. Key definitions that need to be agreed include those for ‘ecosystem services’, ‘ecosystem function’ ‘benefits’ and ‘well-being’ – as well as the service categories like ‘provisioning’, ‘regulating’ and ‘cultural’. These definitions are covered in the discussion of the cascade model (Potschin and Haines-Young, 2014).

   Relationship to the four challenges


Human well-being: If ways of measuring changes in well-being are to be developed then we need to understand how services map onto the different components of well-being via the benefits they generate. Hence a consistent set of classifications linking all aspects of the cascade are probably needed.

Sustainable Ecosystem Management: If ecosystem functioning is to be restored then we need a set of consistent metrics that measure service output; thus any classification of services has to support a consistent, tractable and responsive set of measures of service output that allow changes to be monitored over time. 

Governance: The design and evaluation of regulatory frameworks and policies needs to be based on a clear and measurable set of targets so that progress towards policy or management goals can be measured. This will require a consistent and accepted typology of services which is defendable in the public arena.

Competiveness: Advocates of the importance of ecosystem services to the green economy suggest that investment in natural capital can assist in the development of new economic sectors and activities. Thus a ‘mapping’ of services onto economic sectors and activities is important if fully integrated economic and environmental accounting is to be developed and implemented. This will require the careful alignment of different classification systems. Gains and losses of competitiveness is also dependent on understanding the trade-offs between sectors. Trade-off analysis will require consistent definitions and classification typologies if it is to be effective and defendable.















A typology translator is available via the HUGIN website at:

The CICES classification is set up as the 'working classification' for the OpenNESS project. Not everyone will be completely satisfied with each part of the classification or will need it in such detail. Also, there are studies which already have used other classifications, especially those of the MA. This is permissible as long as these can be translated again into the CICES classification, which also requires that participants are aware of the latter classification in order to assess data in a manner that allows such translation. An illustration of the web-based tool based on the HUGIN Expert Bayesian Belief Network software, that uses CICES to translate between different classifications systems, is shown in Figure 1. This tool is now being extended to allow the inclusion of national implementations of CICES such as that made in Belgium (CICES-Be).

Figure 1: Web-based tool for translating between ecosystem service classifications based on CICES

   Key paper

Executive Summary in: Haines-Young, R. and Potschin, M. (2013): Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES): Consultation on Version 4, August-December 2012. EEA Framework Contract No EEA/IEA/09/003. Download at and spread sheet.

   Background and cited papers

  • Costanza, R. (2008): Ecosystem services: multiple classification systems are needed. Biol.Cons. 141: 350-352.
  • Fisher, B., Turner, R. K. and Morling, P. (2009): Defining and classifying ecosystem services for decision making. Ecological Economics 68(3): 643-653.
  • Fisher, B. and Turner, K. (2008): Ecosystem services: Classification for valuation. Biol.Cons. 141: 1167-1169.
  • Landers, D. and Nahlik, A. (2013): Final ecosystem goods and services classification system (FEGS-CS). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-13/122, 2013.
  • MAES (2014): Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem and their Services. Indicators for ecosystem assessments under action 5 of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020. 2nd Report – Final February 2014.
  • Potschin, M. and Haines-Young, R. (2011): Ecosystem Services: Exploring a geographical perspective. Progress in Physical Geography 35(5): 575-594.
  • Potschin, M. and Haines-Young, R. (2014): Conceptual Frameworks and the Cascade Model. In: Potschin, M. and K. Jax (eds): OpenNESS Reference Book. EC FP7 Grant Agreement no. 308428. Available via:
  • SEEA (2012): System of Environmental-Economic Accounting: Central Framework.
  • Sokal, R.R. (1974): Classification: Purposes, Principles, Progress, Prospects. Science, 185, 1115-1123
  • Wallace, K. (2007): Classification of ecosystem services: Problems and solutions. Biol.Cons. 139: 235-246.
  • Wallace, K. (2008): Ecosystem services: Multiple classifications or confusion? Bio.Cons. 141: 353-354.

Review editor: Francis Turkelboom (INBO)

Suggested citation: Haines-Young, R. and M. Potschin (2014): Typology/Classification of Ecosystem Services. In: Potschin, M. and K. Jax (eds): OpenNESS Ecosystem Services Reference Book. EC FP7 Grant Agreement no. 308428. Available via:

Acknowledgements: The following OpenNESS partners have contributed to the consultation: Francesc Baró (UAB), Ulrich Heink (UFZ), Christian Schleyer (UFZ), Anders Madsen (HUGIN), Martin Karlsen (HUGIN), Heli Saarikoski (SYKE), Erik Stange (NINA), Graciela Rusch (NINA), Jari Niemelä (UH), David Barton (NINA), Pam Berry (UOXF), Raktima Mukhopadhyay (IBRAD), SB Roy(IBRAD), Angheluta Vadineanu (UB-DSES), Joachim Maes (JRC), Marina García-Llorente (UAM), Francis Turkelboom (INBO), Bálint Czúcz (MTA ÖK), Leon Braat (Alterra), Mette Termansen (DMU), Jiska van Dijk (NINA), Eszter Kelemen (ESSRG), Réka Aszalós (MTA ÖK), David Odee (KEFRI)

Disclaimer: This document is a preliminary but ‘stable’ working document for the OpenNESS project. It has been consulted on formally within the consortium. It is not meant to be a full review on the topic but represents an agreed basis for taking the work of the project forward. Its content may, however, change as the results of OpenNESS emerge. A final version, incorporating all the new material will be published at the end of project in 2017.