The value of the environment – to the economy and to human wellbeing – can be estimated through ecosystems accounts. Accounts on ecosystem assets and the services they provide can be compiled using the System of Environmental Economic Accounting Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) framework adopted by the United Nations Statistical Commission in March 2021 (SEEA 2022).

In Australia, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW, formerly the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment – DAWE) is developing environmental ecosystem accounts. To do this, it is seeking to gain a wide understanding of the extent of the economic and social benefits of ecosystem services. It was in this context that the former DAWE commissioned the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to conduct an extensive review of the evidence on ecosystem services and their benefits to, and impacts on, human health.

This review analyses a broad range of current relevant literature on the benefits of the following 3 ecosystem services for human health:

  • air filtration – the filtering of air-borne pollutants by ecosystems, in particular by plants,
  • to mitigate harmful effects of pollution
  • local climate regulation – the regulation of ambient temperatures by plants and water bodies to improve local living conditions
  • recreation-related services – the qualities of ecosystems that allow people to use and enjoy the environment, such as through providing opportunities for physical activity or other passive recreational pursuits.

An extensive review of available Australian and international literature found associations between ecosystem services and a range of health outcomes, although the evidence more strongly supported this relationship for some health outcomes than others. The review also sought to uncover existing research of health benefits of these ecosystem services in economic terms, in particular those using methods consistent with the SEEA EA framework.

The AIHW review revealed multiple examples of evidence in support of a wide range of health benefits associated with each of the 3 ecosystem services. Key health benefits included:

  • air filtration is associated with improved respiratory outcomes (such as for asthma) and decreases in mortality. Positive maternal and perinatal outcomes are areas being increasingly researched
  • local climate regulation is associated with decreases in both all-cause mortality, and in hospitalisations due to heat
  • recreation-related services are associated with increases in both physical activity, and in subjective mental wellbeing associated with recreation in nature.

A range of other health benefits associated with these ecosystem services were also revealed, such as for cardiovascular health, heat-related mortality, obesity, diabetes, and immune function. However, the evidence for these tended to be inconsistent: some studies supported a positive association between the ecosystem service and the health benefit, while others found no association, or insufficient evidence to support one. In many cases, the equivocal findings could be attributed to design limitations in the original research articles. Inconclusive evidence does not necessarily mean an association does not exist – rather that the research approach may not have been the most appropriate for the research question.