Development of the ecosystem approach

International context

The ecosystem approach was formulated during the 1990s as a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources. The twelve principles were set out at a meeting in Malawi in 1998, which was organised under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In 2002, the sixth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention recommended the application of the principles and guidance on the ecosystem approach.

Public policy in the UK

As a party to the international Convention on Biological Diversity, national government in all jurisdictions of the UK is required to play its part in implementing the ecosystem approach. 


HM Government's 2011 Natural Environment White Paper for England, 'The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature', outlines its vision for the natural environment over the next 50 years. Many parts of the document reflect elements of the ecosystem approach. The White Paper included the Government's commitment to establish the Ecosystems Knowledge Network, which is dedicated to showing what the approach means in practice. In 2007, Defra published an Ecosystems Approach Action Plan. This document, which was updated in 2010, explains how the approach can be embedded into policy-making and delivery of public programmes. It states that the ecosystem approach is there to “help us make better-informed decisions about how to balance economic, environmental and social objectives”. The Biodiversity Strategy for England also included a target (Target 1C) that focuses on how we can better connect people with nature and appreciate the benefits that the environment provides for society. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty have been working to apply this. 


The Scottish Government’s Land Use Strategy, a committment in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, sets out the need to demonstrate how the ecosystem approach might be taken into account in decisions about how land is managed. An Information Note is available to show how the approach might work in practice. The Scottish Government has also published a report on how the ecosystem approach can be applied in green infrastructure planning. This document provides guidance on how to use land and water in ways that work with nature to sustain the benefits nature provides. 


Through the Environment Act (Wales) 2016, Wales is committed to the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources.  The principles for the sustainable management of natural resources, formulated by Natural Resources Wales, reflect the ecosystem approach. The White Paper for an Environment Bill in Wales (the precursor to the 2016 Environment Act) included specifications for how it applied the ecosystem approach (see the table on Page 76 of the summary).  

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and The Planning (Wales) Act 2015 complement the provisions of the Environment Act, providing a framework for an integrated approach to managing the natural environment of Wales. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act mandates all public bodies to work together towards wellbeing goals. This provides a clear opportunity for management of the natural environment centred on the wellbeing of all the people of Wales.

Northern Ireland

In 2015, Northern Ireland Government published a Biodiversity Strategy that makes clear reference to the ecosystem approach, in the context of a greater understanding of the value of the natural environment.

Guidance and support

Government agencies with responsibilities for the natural environment have been active in explaining what the approach is and what it means in practice. See, for example: