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Ecosystems provide humankind with a range of beneficial resources, goods and services. Yet human use and exploitation of the biosphere is increasing at such a pace and scale that many of the major ecosystems are threatened, and may not be able to continue to function in ways that are vital to support the existence of humanity.Re-framing environmental resource use has led to the emergence of the concepts of ecosystem services (ES) and natural capital (NC).
This discourse indicates not only a change in our understanding of functions at the ecosystem scale, but also a fundamental shift in how we perceive the relationship between people and the ecosystems on which they depend.
Although the ES and NC concepts have been adopted in high-level policy frameworks, e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the EU biodiversity strategy, a mismatch still exists between the wealth of conceptual understanding in science, the diversity of different academic approaches, and the practical application of this knowledge in policy and decision-making practice.
New research is required to explore whether, how and under what conditions these concepts and currently disparate lines of research can move beyond the academic domain towards practical implementation in support of sustainable ecosystem management.
OPERAs (Operational Potential of Ecosystems Research Applications) aims to improve understanding of how applying ES/NC concepts in managing ecosystems contributes to human well-being in different social-ecological systems in inland and coastal zones, in rural and urban areas, related to different ecosystems including forests and fresh water resources.

The project objectives are to:

1. Improve scientific knowledge and understanding of how multiple drivers and existing and foreseen ecosystem management under EU regulatory frameworks change ES/NC;

2. Explore, demonstrate and validate mechanisms, instruments and best practices that will serve to maintain and enhance a sustainable flow of a broad range of services from ecosystems while preserving their ecological value and biological diversity;

3. Further qualify and quantify the trade-offs and synergies between ecosystem traits and functioning, associated ES/NC and their social and economic values in Europe and globally;

4. Improve and modify existing integrated decision-support tools and instruments to better capture and represent the concepts of ES/NC

5. Provide policymakers and stakeholders with transparent and clear guidelines on improved effective and cost-efficient multi-level ES/NC governance structures and practical management measures;

6. Develop, apply and test protocols to generate consistent and coherent spatially and temporally sensitive bio-physical and socio-economic ES/NC datasets and policy indicators;

7. Ensure the long-term perennity of key databases and other major products of the research.