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This paper provides a critique of the cost-benefit analysis tool for ecosystem services policy evaluation. We argue that when applied to public ecosystem services, the theoretical assumptions that underlie economic valuation and cost-benefit analysis fail to fully acknowledge the multiple dimensions of human well-being, the plural forms of value articulation, the complex nature of ecosystems, the distributional biases of markets and the fairness implications of spatio-temporal framing. The current monistic utilitarian approach to ecosystem services policy evaluation should therefore be replaced by a pluralist framework composed of a heterogeneous set of value-articulating instruments that are appropriate to the specific context within which decision-making takes place. It is argued that within this pluralist framework cost-benefit analysis may remain an appropriate tool to examine the contingent trade-offs of local policies that have limited impacts on ecosystems and their services.

Ecosystem services have become a mainstream concept for the expression of values assigned by people to various functions of ecosystems. Even though the introduction of the concept has initiated a vast amount of research, progress in using this knowledge for sustainable resource use remains insufficient. We see a need to broaden the scope of research to answer three key questions that we believe will improve incorporation of ecosystem service research into decision-making for the sustainable use of natural resources to improve human well-being: (i) how are ecosystem services co-produced by social–ecological systems, (ii) who benefits from the provision of ecosystem services, and (iii) what are the best practices for the governance of ecosystem services? Here, we present these key questions, the rationale behind them, and their related scientific challenges in a globally coordinated research programme aimed towards improving sustainable ecosystem management. These questions will frame the activities of ecoSERVICES, formerly a DIVERSITAS project and now a project of Future Earth, in its role as a platform to foster global coordination of multidisciplinary sustainability science through the lens of ecosystem services.