Technical Report 125


Over the last 10 years there has been increasing emphasis both on the sustainable use of natural resources and on the recognition that humans are dependent on ecosystems for their well-being. This dependence extends beyond the resources provided by ecosystems (water, food, fibre, minerals, energy) to benefits such as climate regulation, flood control, pest and disease regulation, clean air and recreation. Benefits that flow from ecosystems, ecosystem services, are a function of the biophysical components of ecosystems and are underpinned by biodiversity. There are several national and international initiatives moving rapidly toward integrating the assessment of ecosystem services into decision-making processes. The EU is implementing policies to enhance the sustainable use of natural resources and halt the degradation of ecosystem services. The 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy has a headline target of “By 2020 the loss of biodiversity in the EU and the degradation of ecosystem services will be halted and, as far as feasible, biodiversity will be restored” and sets out specific targets and policy tools for achieving this.

Environmental risk assessment, ERA, traditionally focusses on impact functions (i.e. environmental exposure assessment) and response functions (i.e. ecological effects assessment), although the endpoints measured are generally not selected to enable quantification of ecosystem service delivery. Adopting an ecosystem services approach means that ERA needs to be extended to include the link to ecosystem services. This may involve: (1) refining existing methodologies to assess more relevant endpoints; (2) developing new approaches for assessing effects on the structure and functioning of ecological entities; (3) enhancing and applying ecological understanding of causal relationships between biophysical structure, functioning and service provision; (4) developing models to translate outputs from ecotoxicological studies to estimates of ecosystem service delivery. However, in order to ensure that future developments are fit for purpose, it is essential that the focus of the ERA, i.e. the protection goal, is clearly defined within an ecosystem services framework.

There is an acceptance that protection goals specified in current EU legislation are very general and that more specific protection goals need to be developed in order to guide risk assessment and inform risk management decisions. In 2010, the European Food safety Authority, EFSA, produced a scientific opinion outlining how an ecosystem services framework could be used to develop specific protection goals for the environmental risk assessment of pesticides and more recently, has extended this approach to invasive species, feed additives and genetically modified organisms. This growing interest in using ecosystem services to help define and communicate protection goals will inevitably influence chemical regulation. Therefore, it is timely for the chemical industry to engage in this topic, together with other stakeholders, to help determine and influence developments.

The aim of the Task Force was to investigate the applicability of the EFSA framework for developing specific protection goals for a wide range of chemicals. The EFSA approach is based on a structured framework for identifying which ecosystem services might be affected by chemicals, using this assessment for setting specific protection goals and subsequently informing the scope and needs of risk assessment. The Task Force approached the assessment of the applicability of the EFSA framework to a broad range of chemicals and typical environmental exposure scenarios by working through four case studies, i.e. “learning by doing”. The focus on case studies enabled the Task Force to identify where the steps of the framework worked well and where development is needed. The four different case studies (oil refinery emissions, oil dispersants, down the drain chemicals and persistent organic pollutants) were selected to provide a range of emission scenarios and receptor habitats. A 5-step approach was followed to identify habitats and ecosystem services potentially impacted by emissions of these chemicals.

The Task Force found the EFSA framework to be conceptually straightforward and logical. However, there were many points in the framework where additional information and more detailed guidance will be required for general applicability to all chemical sectors, including pesticides. Furthermore, a strong theme throughout the Task Force application of the framework was the importance of prioritising at each step in order to manage the time and effort required.  The key development needs identified at each step are summarised below.

Steps 1 and 2: Construct a habitat x ecosystem service matrix and assign importance rankings

The development of a reference table of habitats and assigning their importance for ecosystem service provision is essential for the framework approach. It is clear that the habitat x ecosystem service matrix as used by EFSA requires further work to extend the assessment to all combinations of habitats and ecosystem services, especially for the marine habitats (i.e. marine inlets and transitional waters; coastal areas; shelf; open ocean).

The use of all types of ecosystem services in the initial steps of the framework, as recommended by EFSA, was considered important in identifying the key service providing units. The Task Force did not consider the completeness of the list but did not identify any gaps arising from the four case studies. Deviations from the EFSA approach included the combining of primary production with photosynthesis where the Task Force considered the service providing units to be essentially similar and the exclusion of abiotic ecosystem services such as oil (for fuel) and flowing water (for power generation), since these were not provided via biotic service providing units. Including service providing units that provide supporting and other intermediate services was considered a more explicit and informed approach to deriving key groups of service providing units and, therefore, in any subsequent identification of testing strategies for risk assessing the potential impacts on specific protection goals.

The treatment of biodiversity in the habitat x ecosystem service matrix was identified as a topic requiring further discussion. The Task Force adopted the approach that biodiversity underpins the delivery of all ecosystem services that are dependent on biotic processes and specific components of biodiversity are explicitly addressed in many individual ecosystem services (e.g. genetic resources, ornamental resources, pollination, pest control, aesthetic value etc).  Biodiversity, as defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity, was considered part of natural capital and not an ecosystem service per se as its inclusion as an ecosystem services would lead to the protection of ‘everything, everywhere’, which is too generic and vague to be useful for scientific risk assessment. Familiarity with the definitions of ecosystem services and other terms is an important requirement if the EFSA framework is to be applied correctly and efficiently.

Step 3: Ranking potential impact for habitat x ecosystem service combinations using exposure and effects information

The Task Force found the preparation of schematic diagrams of potential routes of exposure helpful in assessing and communicating the relative level of exposure each of the habitats could experience from specific chemicals in the case studies. The use of a three coloured traffic light approach proved adequate in ranking and differentiating levels of concern.  Experience and additional guidance would help minimise differences between individuals scoring habitat x ecosystem service combinations.

The Task Force initially aimed to only use the relative level of exposure to rank the level of concern for each habitat x ecosystem service combination. Although exposure was acknowledged as the main driver along with importance of habitats for ecosystem service provision, additional chemical-related factors were also identified and applied.

Assessing the level of potential impact due to chemical exposure was difficult for some ecosystem services. This was particularly pertinent for cultural services where there can be differences in how different cultures perceive and value ecosystem services.

Step 4: Categorising the level of concern for exposed ecosystem services

In order to streamline the assessment of exposed habitat x ecosystem service combinations, the Task Force devised a prioritisation matrix. To focus the Task Force resource, only those combinations assessed as medium or high concern were investigated further in the case studies. Including prioritising steps into the framework is an important option to help align resources to the required level of assessment.

At this step the Task Force ensured that potentially impacted service providing units in habitat and ecosystem service combinations identified as medium and high concern were identified at a suitable level of resolution for subsequent specific protection goal description. Access to reference tables of the key service providing units likely to occur in specific habitats helps complete this task and aids consistency.

Step 5: Defining specific protection goal for ecosystem services of high and medium concern

The Task Force considered that the six dimensions in EFSA’s guidance (ecological entity, attributes, magnitude of effect, temporal and spatial scale of effect and the degree of certainty required) provide a good basis for describing specific protection goals. However, derivation of specific protection goals was achieved with a high degree of uncertainty because of the lack of detailed guidance and knowledge in deciding ecological entities, their attributes and especially the scale of potential impact. Adopting the ecological threshold option focuses on identifying the maximum tolerable impact on the entity/attribute of concern in order to protect the ecosystem service of interest. The scientific challenge here is to have sufficient knowledge to be able to link ecological changes to changes in ecosystem service delivery (i.e. ecological production functions) and to identify thresholds of ecological change at which ecosystem service delivery is affected. Given the uncertainties associated with identifying thresholds, a precautionary approach is to assume that ‘maximum tolerable impact’ is ‘no/negligible impact’. Adopting the recovery option considers some impacts at limited spatial and temporal scales to be acceptable assuming that full recovery occurs.  The scientific challenge here, in addition to establishing ecological production functions, is understanding recovery processes within a landscape context and the spatio-temporal dynamics of ecosystem service delivery. In addition, there is a need for dialogue with risk managers to agree on specific protection goals and to clarify which bundle of ecosystem services is to be protected where and at what level.

The scope of the Task Force objectives effectively concluded with the derivation of specific protection goals for selected case studies. How these specific protect goals might be used in subsequent chemical risk assessment (prospective and retrospective) was not considered, but this is a key next step in practical application of the EFSA framework. In addition to the development of testing and modelling approaches needed to assess impacts on the service providing units that underpin specific protection goals, there is a need to define acceptable effects from unacceptable ‘adverse’ environmental effects, e.g. using retrospective or diagnostic methods.

Applying the ecosystem services concept to derive specific protection goals brings the potential for greater spatial resolution in chemical risk assessment, i.e. specific protection goals can be derived for specific land-uses or landscape typologies. It, therefore, could facilitate increasing the environmental relevance of risk assessments, a need identified by several scientific advisory groups, e.g. EC Scientific Committees. Whilst increasing environmental relevance in this way has scientific merit, the practical outcome of defining spatially explicit protection goals to inform risk assessment for a range of chemical sectors requires further investigation and evaluation. The Task Force recommends that such further work is initiated to more fully determine the practical application of the ecosystem services approach.

The EFSA framework represents a top-down approach for deriving specific protection goals for habitats that can be expected to be exposed to specified anthropogenic chemicals. In principle, the framework can be applied to a broad range of chemicals and exposure scenarios. With modifications, clarity on terminology / definitions and further development, the framework could provide a methodical approach for the identification and prioritisation of ecosystems and services that are most at risk. Prioritised habitats and key service providing units could then form the focus for subsequent risk assessment.