Trading Habitat Could Lower Conservation Costs
A collaboration of European ecologists and
economists - from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
in Germany and the University of Nottingham, UK - is conducting a study to ascertain whether the concept of
tradeable permits for wildlife conservation could help minimize the destruction of important ecosystems.
The work explores the implications of a method whereby each region sets a target for
how much land it wants to keep for wildlife conservation, then leaves it up to the free market to find the most
cost-effective way of doing so. In this system, developers wanting to destroy valuable habitat must purchase
permits to do so from others who have created pieces of valuable habitat elsewhere. Also known as habitat banking,
the approach would give an immediate financial gain to landowners who upgrade their land for wildlife.
The European research team needed to address one particular problem, which is that
the value of one piece of wildlife habitat depends partly on how near it is to other pieces of habitat, because of
the need for species migration. The researchers surmounted this problem by building a measure of connectivity into
the ecological value of each piece of land.
The biggest advantage of habitat banking is cheaper conservation, according to Frank
Wätzold, leader of the economic part of the team, at UFZ. "Often, conservation is extremely expensive when the same
benefit could be gained much more cheaply elsewhere," he said. Wätzold acknowledged that habitat banking can never
replace permanent reserves, pointing out that: "We restrict our work right from the beginning to habitat types that
only require a rather limited period of time for recovery. Only these cases show potential for [the method of]
applying tradeable permits to conservation."
He continued: "In terms of the question of whether we would attach, say, the same
value to a fully established wetland as a wetland that needs a couple more years to be in that stage: we have not
yet formed a definite opinion, but it seems to make sense not to do so because they are of different
The method implicitly includes an assumption that it will be used with success over
wide areas of land. "We assume that with a system of tradeable permits there cannot be a [reduced] level of habitat
because every time you destroy a habitat you have to restore another one somewhere else," Wätzold explained to
environmentalresearchweb. He added that it would be possible to gear the system towards increasing total wildlife
habitat areas, for example by selling permits to government or NGO bodies that then commit to not trade them, or by
introducing the rule that any habitat destroyed must be offset by a larger amount created elsewhere, say using a
trading ratio of 2:1.
The response from other ecologists has been mixed. Some believe that it will be
difficult to assign a single ecological value to a piece of land. The researchers admit the evaluation process will
be complex but remain optimistic. Wätzold said: "I hope policy (and conservation research) will be open to the idea
of using tradeable permits in selected fields of conservation and start seriously considering it."
This project, which is called "Ecological thresholds for reshaping ecosystem
networks: ameliorating landscapes driven by economic development," (EcoTRADE), is funded under the European Science
Foundation’s EuroDIVERSITY Programme.
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A study into tradeable permits and their potential as a means of minimising ecosystem
by Vanessa Spedding - Jan 4, 2008