Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

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Our work

Healthy ecosystems provide services that are essential for our quality of life, including clean air and water, food, a stable climate, protection against flooding and soil erosion, and attractive green space for inspiration and recreation. The value of the 'natural capital' that underpins these services is increasingly recognised by policymakers. 'Green infrastructure' and 'nature-based solutions' can be cost-effective approaches for addressing urgent societal problems, with multiple benefits for health and well-being, disaster risk reduction, climate mitigation and inclusive economic development.

However, natural capital and the services it provides are under threat from human impacts, including climate change. It is also increasingly clear that new approaches to conservation are needed, which recognise that nature and people are inextricably linked in social-ecological systems. Our research aims to increase understanding of these complex human-climate-ecosystem interactions, to develop more effective policies for managing our natural capital. We are at the forefront of integrating and improving techniques for observing and projecting the effects of environmental change on species, ecosystems and the services they provide. We are also researching adaptation options for biodiversity and how mitigation and adaptation measures in other sectors might impact on biodiversity. More specifically we are involved in:

  • mapping, assessing and valuing natural capital, green infrastructure and ecosystem services;
  • using sectoral and integrated modelling techniques to project changes in the potential distributions of species and ecosystems at local, regional and global scales and to assess their adaptive capacity and vulnerability to climate change;
  • investigating the role of adaptation and mitigation measures in different sectors in offsetting the projected changes and their impacts on biodiversity;
  • costing adaptation in natural ecosystems to climate change;
  • developing a user-friendly, interactive and web-based platform for stakeholder-led climate change adaptation and vulnerability assessment which explicitly evaluates cross-sectoral interactions between the key sectors driving landscape change in Europe;
  • quantifying the contribution of different organisms, and the effects of various drivers of change, on the provision of ecosystem services;
  • assessing the implications of the above for conservation policy and management.

Current projects

  • Funding: Natural England
  • Phase 1: Oct 2017-Mar 2018. Phase 2: Oct 2018-March 2019. Phase 3: Oct 2019-March 2020.
  • ECI Lead: Alison Smith

Eco-metric approach to growing natural capital

The UK Government is committed to achieving net biodiversity gain, and Defra has developed a biodiversity metric to measure whether this goal is being achieved for individual developments. The eco-metric is an extension of the biodiversity metric which shows how changes in natural capital affect the delivery of wider ecosystem services such as regulation of flooding, erosion, air quality and climate, provision of food and water, and cultural services such as recreation and aesthetic value.

  • Funding: UNSDSN
  • 2019-2020
  • ECI Leads: Professor Jim Hall and Alison Smith

The Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use and Energy Pathways (FABLE) Consortium

FABLE is a collaborative initiative, operating as part of the Food and Land Use Coalition, to understand how countries can transition towards sustainable land use and food systems. It is coordinated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and involves modelling teams from leading institutions in 18 countries. The main aim is to develop and test ambitious integrated strategies that can tackle the synergies and trade-offs between agriculture, water, biodiversity, healthy diets and greenhouse gas emissions. Each FABLE country team is responsible for its own analysis, and all coordinate to share lessons, ensure consistent trade flows, and align the sum of national pathways with the SDGs and the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The UK country team is steered by the University of Oxford & the Centre of Ecology & Hydrology and led by Prof Paula Harrison (CEH) (supported by Alison Smith, Prof. Jim Hall and Prof. Charles Godfray at Oxford and Prof. Mark Bailey at CEH).

Tree in the grounds of Blenheim Palace
  • Funding: Blenheim Estate
  • 2019-2020
  • ECI Lead: Alison Smith

Natural Capital Assessment for the Blenheim Estate

The natural capital of the Blenheim Estate, including the woodlands, fields, gardens, lakes and other habitats, delivers significant benefits for the estate, as well as the surrounding community and visitors. Apart from the outstanding cultural and historic value of the estate, which contributes to a ‘sense of place’, the estate delivers a range of other services such as flood protection, carbon storage, pollination, recreation and interaction with nature. We are mapping and assessing the natural capital value of the Blenheim Estate, in order to provide metrics for measuring year-on-year performance. The assessment will be used to demonstrate the natural capital value to investors, local communities and visitors, identify opportunities to increase natural capital value through well-targeted enhancements, and make the business case for investing in maintaining natural capital on the estate.

Pam Berry
  • Funding: Defra
  • 2019-2021
  • ECI Lead: Dr Pam Berry

Rural Land Use Systems Fellowship, Defra

Dr Pam Berry was appointed as Rural Land Use Systems Fellow for Defra in April 2019. She is one of six senior academic fellows working on the Defra Systems Research Programme, which aims to inform key future policy decision on some of the UK’s most pressing environmental issues. Led by Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser, the systems fellows are working in close partnership with the research community and are taking a ‘systems mapping’ approach to identify how a policy change in one area might affect another, and make sure the connections between environmental issues are properly considered.

  • Funding: various
  • 2019-present
  • ECI Leads: Dr Pam Berry and Alison Smith

Nature-based Solutions Initiative

Both Pam Berry and Alison Smith are Senior Associates with the Nature-based Solutions Initiative, led by Prof. Nathalie Seddon in the Department of Zoology. Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are actions that work with and enhance nature to help address societal challenges. The NBSI aims to understand the potential of NbS, and to support their sustainable implementation through the application of good evidence from science and practice.

  • Funding: EPSRC
  • 2016-2020
  • ECI Lead: Prof. Jim Hall


Alison Smith is working with the ITRC (Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium) team on the MISTRAL project, to explore methods for integrating the analysis of green infrastructure into the NISMOD infrastructure system-of-systems model of housing, transport, energy, water and communications. By mapping and assessing natural capital in the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Arc case study area, Alison aims to provide an indication of the potential impact of different spatial development scenarios on natural capital and the ecosystem services it delivers. In the longer term, this could contribute to developing a ‘Green Vision’ scenario that protects and enhances natural capital and builds in new green infrastructure to minimise the loss of ecosystem services due to development.

Aerial shot of a modern sustainable neighbourhood in Almere, The Netherlands
  • Funding: Alan Turing Institute
  • 2019-2020
  • ECI Lead: Prof. Jim Hall

Machine Learning and spatial optimisation to inform policy options for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc

This project will build upon existing ITRC research on infrastructure needs and policy options for alternative spatial development scenarios in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. The project will employ Machine Learning (ML) to characterise the spatial complexity of different development patterns, and spatial optimisation to generate options for where new development and its connecting infrastructure could be located to achieve multiple objectives and minimise adverse impacts. Alison Smith will work with the infrastructure experts in the ITRC team to develop a Green Vision scenario that protects existing natural capital assets within the Arc, and builds high quality green infrastructure into new developments to maintain connectivity for people and wildlife.

Map showing natural capital scores in the Oxford-Cambridge arc
  • Funding: Natural England
  • 2019-2020
  • ECI Lead: Alison Smith

Local Natural Capital Plan for the Oxford-Cambridge Development Arc

Alison is a member of the Technical Committee for a project by Natural England and the Environment Agency to develop evidence to support a Local Natural Capital Plan for the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Arc. The Committee is helping to support the development of publically accessible natural capital maps for the Arc, using open data sources.

panorama of Welsh countryside
  • Funding: NERC
  • 2019-2020
  • ECI Lead: Alison Smith

Landscape Decisions: Land Allocation Model Intercomparison

Alison is working with a team led by Prof. Pete Smith at the University of Aberdeen, on a model inter-comparison project which is comparing a number of different models for ecosystem service assessment. Alison will be applying the eco-metric tool developed for Natural England to a set of case studies, and the results will then be compared with a range of other tools and approaches including InVEST, LUCI, NEVO, the NCPT and the Land Choices guide.

Completed Projects

Map of Oxfordshire showing natural capital scores
  • Funding: Higher Education Innovation Fund OPEN scheme
  • 2018-2019
  • ECI Lead: Alison Smith

Oxford Policy Exchange Fellowship (OPEN): Evidence-based planning in the Oxfordshire growth area: working with local authorities to maximise the socio-economic benefits of green infrastructure

Alison Smith was awarded an Oxford Policy Exchange Network (OPEN) fellowship to work with Oxfordshire County Council, developing a set of natural capital maps of Oxfordshire to feed into the evidence base for development of the Oxfordshire Plan to 2050. Working closely alongside council officers, and liaising with key staff in the four District Councils, Oxford City Council and other stakeholders, Alison was able to tailor the maps to meet the needs of local stakeholders and policymakers. The fellowship was highly effective in enabling us to strengthen the links between the ECI’s academic research and the end-users in policy and practice.

High end scenarios
  • Funding: EU FP7
  • 2013-2018
  • ECI Lead: Dr Paula Harrison

Impacts and Risks from High-End Scenarios: Strategies for Innovative Solutions (IMPRESSIONS)

This project aims to support decision-makers through the co-production of a set of innovative and effective policy strategies and measures in key social, economic, and environmental sectors based on an improved quantification and assessment of the cross-sectoral impacts and vulnerabilities associated with high-end scenarios, and by appraising the risks, opportunities and uncertainties for different adaptation and mitigation pathways to address these impacts and vulnerabilities across different scales.

  • Funding: GIZ
  • Aug 2017 - Nov 2017
  • ECI Lead: Dr Pam Berry

Guidebook for the Monitoring and Evaluation of Ecosystem-based adaptation

This project is developing a step by step guidebook for the monitoring and evaluation of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) to inform project developers, implementers and other EbA practitioners as well as the international climate community on how the benefits of EbA can be assessed and reported. The aim is to help demonstrate and communicate the benefits of EbA in order to strengthen the case for EbA as a valuable strategy for responding to the evolving impacts of climate change. In doing so, the guidebook and its application will also contribute to the international debate about transparency and reporting of adaptation in context of the Paris Agreement and Nationally Determined Contributions.

  • Funding: NERC
  • 2016-2017
  • ECI Lead: Dr Pam Berry and Alison Smith

Tools for planning and evaluating green infrastructure - Bicester and beyond

Green infrastructure (GI), such as parks, street trees and water features, can provide a range of benefits including flood protection, carbon storage, space for recreation and habitat for wildlife. Working closely with local planners and other stakeholders in Bicester and beyond, the ECI and partners Forest Research will test a range of practical tools for mapping and assessing GI, and develop clear step-by-step guidance to help users select and apply the best tools to meet their needs.

Tool Assessor website
  • Funding: NERC
  • 2016 - 2017
  • ECI Lead: Dr Alison Smith and Dr Rob Dunford

EKN Tool Assessor: Applying innovation for assessing ecosystem services, green infrastructure and natural capital

There is a confusing array of tools and methods for assessing natural capital, green infrastructure and ecosystem services, and potential users often find it difficult to work out which tools might meet their needs. The Ecosystems Knowledge Network (EKN) has developed a ‘Tool Assessor’ website to showcase the most useful tools for applying in the UK. This NERC-funded Green Infrastructure Innovation Internship allowed Alison Smith and Rob Dunford to work with the EKN for six months, updating and expanding the Tool Assessor as well as organising two Knowledge Exchange events to connect planners and rural estate professionals with tools that might be useful to them.

farming land
  • Funding: UK Committee on Climate Change, Adaptation Sub-Committee
  • 2017
  • ECI Lead: Dr Rob Dunford

CCC Land Use project

ECI investigated the potential to develop a land-use model that could quantify the impacts of potential pathways for reducing emissions and increasing carbon sequestration in the UK land use sectors, and assess climate resilience, as well as synergies and trade-offs between different services such as food production and biodiversity. Rob Dunford of ECI led a consortium including Cranfield University, the University of Edinburgh and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. They used the Integrated Assessment Platform (IAP2), which models interactions between different land-use sectors (agriculture, forestry, water, urban, flooding and biodiversity) taking into account socio-economic drivers. They modelled an agriculture and forestry mitigation scenario based on the CCC’s central abatement scenario for the fifth carbon budget, as well as a ‘maximum biodiversity’ climate adaptation scenario. The report was instrumental in informing the CCC’s future land use modelling approach.

  • Funding: John Fell Fund
  • 2016-2017
  • ECI Lead: Dr Rob Dunford, Jo Thompson and Jess Grinter

Nature's value in policy and practice: Evaluating trade-offs between forest and freshwater ecosystems

This interdisciplinary project used natural and social science to investigate trade-offs between land management and freshwater in Galloway, Scotland. It used water chemistry analysis, participant observation of the relationships between local actors, and policy / literature analysis to study i) the role of forest management as a factor limiting the recovery of freshwaters from acidification under conditions of reduced atmospheric pollution, and ii) the role of the perceived value of nature in decision making and its influence on environmental policy and practice.

  • Funding: NERC
  • 2014-2017
  • ECI Lead: Dr Pam Berry and Dr JianJun Yu

MaRIUS Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity

MaRIUS delivered new interdisciplinary and integrated understanding of the impacts of droughts and water scarcity at a range of spatial and temporal scales. It focused on a risk-based approach to drought and water scarcity in order to explore impacts and outcomes. The project captured the complexity of the water scarcity by examining aspects across the social and natural sciences and involving key stakeholders. In MaRIUS, we led the work on the potential impacts of water scarcity and drought on terrestrial ecosystems, in particular woodlands, grasslands and wetlands.

  • Funding: EU FP7
  • 2012-2017
  • ECI Lead: Dr Paula Harrison

Operationalisation of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services (OpenNESS)

OpenNESS aims to translate the concepts of Natural Capital (NC) and Ecosystem Services (ES) into operational frameworks that provide tested, practical and tailored solutions for integrating ES into land, water and urban management and decision-making. It examines how the concepts link to, and support, wider EU economic, social and environmental policy initiatives and scrutinizes the potential and limitations of the concepts of ES and NC.

  • Funding: EU FP7
  • 2011-2015
  • PI: Dr Pam Berry

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Arguments for our future Environment (BESAFE)

The project will use case studies to investigate how much importance people attribute to alternative arguments for the protection of biodiversity and in particular how this relates to ecosystem services. It will also examine the interactions of environmental protection policies between governance levels and will consider the contribution that valuing ecosystem services can make in demonstrating the value of biodiversity. The results will be used as guidance on the effectiveness of alternative arguments and formulating of biodiversity protection strategies applied at the level of EU and member countries.

Full list of archived ecosystem related projects.

Operationalisation of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services (OpenNESS)