Trading the benefits that the environment provides: an 'eBay for ecosystem services'

11 April 2019

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Researchers are seeking feedback on a new online marketplace for 'ecosystem services' - the benefits that humans gain from the natural environment.

NaturEtrade is a web-based mapping tool that takes a new approach to assessing the ecological potential of land in terms of the ecosystem services that it provides (e.g. the provision of drinking water, or pollination of crops), and then 'trading' these services. It was developed with joint funding from the EU’s Life programme and the University of Oxford, initially through the Oxford Martin School.

Simply put, landowners are able to set a price to maintain their land in its present ecological condition, and then be paid by a buyer who has an interest in the land remaining unchanged (or being improved).

An example could be as follows:

  • Five individual farmers in a particular river catchment map their land on NaturEtrade. This is free to do.
  • Individually they decide how much payment they need to maintain their land in the present ecological condition (they know their individual opportunities for doing other things with their land which will degrade it). They set these prices on NaturEtrade and are ‘open’ for entering into a contract.
  • A business further down the river is interested in preventing, say, flooding in their locality. They search NaturEtrade for farmers/land managers in the catchment who could be persuaded to help prevent flooding (byretaining trees on their land, retaining flood meadows, etc.). This is free to do.
  • They bid to support those farmers by entering into contracts with some or all of them to maintain land cover for 12 months. This is automatic - a contract is generated by the system and requires no lawyers.
  • Contracts are exchanged (via a simple online agreement); the business pays into NaturEtrade the agreed sum.
  • After 12 months, NaturEtrade automatically assesses the land parcels under contract and if land has not changed, the payment (less a very small operational fee for NaturEtrade) is released to the land owner.
  • The land owner can put the land back on the system at the same (or higher, or lower) price.
  • New contracts can be made (or old ones renewed).

The researchers hope that contracts could reduce reliance on government agri-environment schemes, and say their ability to monitor land use change cheaply (with satellite images rather than ‘boots on the ground’) means the tool could be used at scale.

The platform is the result of collaboration between the Oxford Long-term Ecology lab in the Department of Zoology, the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School (INET) and the Sylva Foundation, a local charitable trust dedicated to supporting forest and land management, to create NaturEtrade. The work was led by Professor Kathy Willis, first Director of the Biodiversity Institute, a former Oxford Martin School programme.

Her team worked with land owners and managers, including farmers and woodland owners, policy makers, NGOs and local and national governments in England, Estonia, Portugal and Romania to develop the tool which uses big data and complex algorithms to detect land-use change in individual land parcels over time and determine how change has affected ecosystem services.

Feedback needed - can you help?

The project group has prepared a short survey that is split into two parts: (a) questions to establish participants’ relationship to land management in Europe; and (b) feedback on NaturEtrade. Land owners, managers and businesses with an interest in good stewardship of land in Europe are invited to test the mapping capability of NaturEtrade and its potential to assess the ecosystem services of their land, or to test the possibility of finding land on the system that a business can sponsor via a contract for maintaining ecosystem services.

More information is available at the project website, where a link to the survey can be found: