East Asia Blog Series

How to Assign Value to Ecosystem Services

Jindra Nuella Samson, Martino Pelli and Lan N. Le 19 Feb 2024
Vital functions such as air and water purification, climate regulation, and pollination are non-market regulating services provided by the environment. Photo credit: ADB.

Valuation approaches include cost-based, revealed preference, stated preference and benefit transfer.


Recognizing the value of nature is crucial in fostering healthy and resilient ecosystems—essential for ensuring the long-term well-being of the ever-growing global population. It is imperative to understand and acknowledge the true worth of natural assets, not only for the present but also for future generations.

One of the primary challenges stems from the intrinsic non-market nature of many ecosystem goods and services. Nature provides an array of benefits, often intangible and challenging to quantify economically, yet they are fundamental for quality of life.

Various methodologies exist to evaluate the value of these non-commercial ecosystem benefits effectively, providing key insights for making informed decisions and promoting sustainable environmental management.

What are the non-marketed ecosystem goods and services?

Non-marketed ecosystem goods and services are the benefits derived from natural ecosystems that are not typically traded in traditional markets. These services encompass regulating, cultural, and supporting services.

Regulating services include vital functions such as air and water purification, climate regulation, and pollination, all of which maintain the balance of the natural environment.

Cultural services encompass non-material benefits such as recreational spaces, spiritual and educational experiences, and aesthetic appreciation, enriching our cultural life and well-being.

Supporting services form the foundation of ecosystem productivity, including soil formation, nutrient cycling, and primary production. These services often lack a direct market value, making their preservation and appreciation a challenge. Understanding and acknowledging the significance of these non-marketed ecosystem goods and services is crucial for sustainable environmental management and policymaking.

How can one assign a monetary value to non-marketed ecosystem goods and services?

Ecosystem services, integral for the environment and well-being, can be appraised using various valuation methods. These methods utilize market price data or derive insights from consumer preferences though a range of non-market valuation techniques.

  • Cost-based approaches estimate the expenses associated with replicating ecosystem services using human-made methods (replacement cost) or preventing negative environmental impacts (defensive expenditure). For instance, the cost of constructing and maintaining a water treatment plant reflects the value of the water purification service provided by wetlands. However, accurately determining these costs presents a key challenge due to the complexity of ecosystem services.
  • Revealed preference approaches use market data to infer the value of services that are not directly traded in markets. Prominent examples include the “travel cost” method and the “hedonic pricing” model. The travel cost method relies on data such as travel expenses to recreation sites—covering transportation costs, time, entrance fees—to establish demand curves and gauge willingness to pay for access. For example, significant travel and expenses incurred by visitors to a national park suggest a high value for its recreational experience. On the other hand, the hedonic pricing model uses real estate transaction data to estimate the value of environmental features, such as air quality or the impact of noise pollution. For instance, the higher value of houses located near wetlands, compared to those farther away, helps quantify the wetland’s implicit value. 
  • Stated preference approaches employ survey methods to directly gather data from individuals regarding their valuation of various environmental aspects. These encompass two primary methods: contingent valuation (CV) and choice experiments (CE). CV surveys ask about individuals’ willingness to pay for preserving specific ecosystem services. In CE, respondents select their preferred option from a range of scenarios, each presenting different environmental attributes and associated costs. For instance, in the evaluation of wetlands, a choice set might offer options representing varying levels of benefits such as water regulation, purification, recreation, and biodiversity maintenance. Analyzing these choices and trade-offs helps assign monetary values to each benefit. Stated preference approaches are especially useful for valuing environmental benefits not directly bought or sold in the marketplace.
  • Benefit transfer is a practical method for valuing ecosystem services, whereby an estimated value from one location is applied to another with similar characteristics. This approach proves beneficial when faced with constraints such as limited time, resources, or data availability.

While often considered as less precise due to the variability in ecological and socio-economic conditions across sites, its simplicity and ease of use make it a popular choice for rapid assessments. For instance, if a study in one region quantifies the value of a wetland for water purification, benefit transfer enables policy makers in another region with similar wetlands to use this figure as a baseline. This proves particularly helpful for swift, preliminary decision-making.

However, it’s crucial to carefully consider contextual differences between the study area and the application area to ensure the most accurate value transfer possible.

When to Use Which Valuation Approaches

The selection of an appropriate method for valuing specific ecosystem services is not straightforward and heavily depends on the context. Several factors need consideration, including the complexity and significance of the ecosystem service in question, the availability of data, the technical expertise of the analysts involved, and the constraints of time and resources.

Cost-based approaches, while easier to apply, may not fully encapsulate the entire value of a service. On the other hand, revealed preference approaches, though increasingly common, are typically employed in research studies or for analyzing large and complex projects rather than standard project analyses. Meanwhile, stated preference approaches, despite being the preferred method to capture some non-use values of ecosystem services, often face scrutiny due to their subjective nature.

For complex investment projects affecting diverse ecosystems, it is vital to include site-specific studies to accurately assess the benefits and costs of ecosystem services. Integrating environmental impact assessments with economic analysis is crucial to fully understand and value the true worth of nature. This approach ensures decisions are informed by a thorough comprehension of both ecological and economic impacts.

A significant challenge in assessing ecosystem values is the scarcity of data, often leading to the frequent use of benefit transfer methods due to their convenience. To enhance the effectiveness of this technique, the creation of an ecosystem database tool is becoming increasingly essential. This tool would compile reliable, peer-reviewed values from different regions, aiding in the selection of fitting values for benefit transfer purposes. Given the dynamic nature of ecosystem services, the database would require regular updates to reflect changing values, establishing it as a dependable, more streamlined, and precise resource for valuation. The development of such a tool would represent a significant advancement in environmental economics.

This article is the second installment of the valuing nature” explainer series. It is ideal to read thfirst piece before proceeding with this one.

The third article in this series will discuss natural capital accounting, a practical tool that provides an integrated view of the interdependence between the environment, the economy, and society.


Jindra Nuella Samson

Jindra Nuella Samson

Senior Economics Officer, Economic Research and Development Impact Department, Asian Development Bank

Martino Pelli

Martino Pelli

Senior Economist, Economic Research and Development Impact Department, Asian Development Bank

Lan N. Le

Lan N. Le

Environmental Economist, Agriculture, Food, Nature, and Rural Development Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank

This blog is reproduced from Development Asia

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