irrigation and agriculture

Our Approach

Balancing commodity production and the provision of ecosystem services from the land is one of society's greatest challenges. We utilize market mechanisms that incentivize landowners to provide ecosystem services and manage tradeoffs between development and environmental objectives.

countryside farm with fence

Can land conservation pay for itself?


Inadequate incentives for private land conservation

Private landowners typically lack strong incentives for adopting land-use practices that protect the natural environment and the amenities it provides. The traditional government response in the U.S. has been direct land-use controls such as zoning.  These measures have the potential to be inefficient if they block high-valued development and can produce stark inequities among landowners by selecting winners and losers.  


Market mechanisms that encourage private conservation

Proximity to parks, open space, and water bodies can increase the value of residential properties.  The value that these amenities add to residential housing could be captured and used to finance conservation, allowing conserved lands to act as their own sustainable funding source. The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab has extensive experience evaluating the effects of land conservation on nearby property values, and we are exploring new housing development designs that would promote self-financed conservation. 

farmland from aerial view

How do we protect the right parcels of land at the right time?


Conservation priorities are uncertain

Conservation groups with limited funding must optimally allocate their limited resources to maximize conservation benefits. In theory we know that it is optimal to prioritize conservation on land parcels facing more imminent threats of development. But, in practice, making this decision is challenging because development threats are uncertain and may be known for sure only after conservation is no longer an option.


Anticipate the threat of future development

Current prices for undeveloped land reflect the market’s best guess about how that land will be used in the future.  For example, the price of a farmland parcel will be high if it is expected to soon be converted to a high-valued developed use. The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab has created a technique for analyzing undeveloped land prices to identify what share of the price is associated with expected future returns from development. This allows us to quantify the development threat facing any given parcel of land and estimate the value of a conservation easement that would effectively prevent future development of that parcel.

countryside agriculture

How can we encourage private landowners to provide ecosystem services?


The costs of private conservation can be prohibitive

Private landowners must make difficult choices about how to use their land. They can choose to develop it, or conserve it in its natural state, but unless the right economic incentives are in place, most landowners are unlikely to make land-use decisions that favor environmental protection or secure the valuable resources and services their land provides. Unless landowners are given a financial reward for conservation, they will privately bear the cost of providing services that benefit the public at large. 


Provide economic incentives that motivate better land-use practices

The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab uses an econometric framework to analyze how market-based incentives can encourage land-use practices that promote the sustained provision of valuable ecosystem services. We use our findings to guide conservation agencies on how to best allocate resources and design effective conservation policies.

oil rig at dusk with clouds

How can we ensure that carbon offsets effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions?


Improper design can undermine the success of climate policies

Energy producers in California are subject to limits on emissions of greenhouse gases. The costs of staying within these limits vary from firm to firm, but by purchasing less expensive carbon offsets, users with high emission reduction costs can meet their emissions targets in a more cost-effective way. If properly integrated into a climate policy, carbon offset programs have the potential to reduce the policy’s overall cost. But the effectiveness of these programs in uncertain, as it can be difficult to know if carbon offsets (e.g., tree planting) are additional, meaning they go beyond any climate mitigation actions that would have been taken even in the absence of payments from energy producers. If offsets are non-additional, total emissions will be higher and the climate policy will have failed to successfully reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. 


Innovations in climate policy design

The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab is exploring new policy designs that ensure the additionality of carbon offsets. Under the new system we are developing, government regulators can more easily verify whether the offsets provided by producers represent actual emissions reductions, ensuring that offsets achieve the goal of reducing costs while preserving the integrity of the climate policy.