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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Payment for ecosystem services (PES)

Variable relationship:

According to Jack et al. (2008), the payments for ecosystem services (Policy Instrument) "approach is based on a theoretically straightforward proposotion: pay individuals or communities to undertake actions that increase the level of desired ecosystem services." The individuals or communities in question are generally resource users whose actions affect the state of the environment and the provision of important ecosystem services. The payer may be a government, in which case PES schemes are essentially subsidies. Alternatively, the payer can be the individuals who most directly receive the benefits, in which case the policy takes on a more market-based approach (although not in the sense that actual "market-based policies" are, as these construct markets in the rights to use resources, rather than a market exchange involving the benefits derived from these resources).

The commodity is ill-defined, and, in most cases, governments play an intermediary role by mobilizing resources from consumers to a government fund, which then distributes financial resources to ecosystem-service stewards at a pre-established price (Corbera et al. 2009).

Within the environmental sector, some of the most well-known PES schemese include the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States agricultural sector, and the international program of Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

Like other transaction-based policy instruments, rights need to be clearly defined (Property Security) and the costs of providing information have to be reasonable (Vatn 2010) (Transaction Costs); performance has to be monitored (External Monitoring); and violations sanctioned (External Sanctions).

Critiques of PES have pointed to issues concerning providers of ES who understand the payments and the potential crowding out impact of PES on other motivators of environmental stewardship (Vatn 2010).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Policy instrumentProximate independent variablePES is a type of policy instrument that is used to affect the behavior of resource users. More specifically, PES are voluntary transaction where well-defined ES (environmental service) (or land use likely to secure that service) is being ‘bought’ by a (minimum one) ES buyer from a (minimum one) ES provider if and only if the ES provider secures ES provision (conditionality).PES scheme
External sanctionsModerating independent variableSanctions encourage users to comply with the practices prescribed by the PES schemeYes
Property securityModerating independent variableLike in other transaction-based instruments, clarity and security of property rights increases the likelihood that those providing the ecosystem services are rewarded according to their efforts.High
Transaction costsModerating independent variableLike in other transaction-based instruments, the lower transaction costs of monitoring performance, setting prices and solving potential conflicts the higher the net benefits of PES programs.Low
External monitoringModerating independent variablePerformance of users receiving the payments has to be monitored to guarantee that users comply with the requirementsYes
ComplianceModerating independent variableonitoring and sanctioning can enable the compliance needed to ensure that the PES scheme is effective.Yes
Commons condition trendFinal outcomePES reward resource users for their conservation efforts. . Improved

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Private property rights and conservationrelated

Related Studies


Jack, B Kelsey, Carolyn Kousky, and Katharine R E Sims. 2008. “Designing Payments for Ecosystem Services: Lessons from Previous Experience with Incentive-Based Mechanisms.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (28): 9465–9470.


Vatn, Arild. 2010. "An institutional analysis of payments for environmental services."  Ecological Economics 69 (6):1245-1252.


Corbera, Esteve, Carmen González Soberanis, and Katrina Brown. 2009. "Institutional dimensions of Payments for Ecosystem Services: An analysis of Mexico's carbon forestry programme."  Ecological Economics 68 (3):743-761. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.06.008.