IU researcher to lead study of market-based conservation in Europe

  • Aug. 26, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A research team lead by Indiana University faculty member Rebecca Lave has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study the introduction of market-based environmental conservation policies in the European Union.

The two-year, $314,750 grant will fund research focusing on habitat banking, in which the environmental costs of development projects are offset by purchasing credits generated by restoration projects elsewhere.

The European Union, with nations implementing new policies on different schedules and with different approaches, allows for a sort of natural experiment to test the global feasibility of market-based conservation, said Lave, associate professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This kind of market-based approach is now the dominant international policy framework for environmental protection,” Lave said. “Having conditions for a natural experiment like this will allow us to evaluate its effectiveness.”

Lave is principal investigator for the project. Co-principal investigators are Esteve Corbera of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Morgan Robertson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Market-based conservation has been widely practiced in the United States for 25 years. For example, a developer, business or government agency that destroys a sensitive wetland might be required to create or restore a wetland to offset the loss -- or the same with the loss of streams or wildlife habitat. Market-based approaches let parties buy and sell credits for offsetting environmental damage.

In theory, it’s an efficient way to achieve the goal of no net loss of environmental assets. But critics have taken issue with the approach, questioning whether the benefits really are comparable to the losses and sometimes labeling it a license to destroy important habitat. While the approach has been accepted in the U.S., including by major environmental organizations, there has been resistance to its adoption in Europe.

Lave and her colleagues will conduct a comparative analysis of market-based conservation in three “early adopter” nations: Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain, which are in different stages of implementing the approach.

The research will include interviews with staff at the European Commission, national and regional government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, consultants, scientists and environmental entrepreneurs involved in formulating and implementing the policies.

The investigators also will analyze the discourse about the policies in popular media, technical reports and academic journals and study the positions taken by policy officials and decision-makers. They will attend and observe meetings and conferences where the issues are addressed, starting in November with the World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In addition to academic publications, the researchers expect to produce policy documents, conference presentations and a webinar series to contribute to debates on market-based conservation.

Lave said implementation of habitat banking in Europe -- with its modern trade and regulatory systems and its integrated national economics -- provides a test for global use of the approach.

“The EU should be the ideal base case,” she said. “If it doesn’t work there, we may need a different framework.”

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