In up to three cohorts of 14 doctoral researchers each, ECO-N will study connected natural commons from economics and science perspectives. This page describes the core research idea, possible doctoral research topics as part of interdisciplinary collaborative projects, and synthesis activities.


The Research-Training Group ECO-N will adopt an interdisciplinary collaborative approach to studying natural commons related to atmosphere and biodiversity. ECO-N will synthesise insights across different connected natural commons and thus contribute to the scientific basis for regional, national and international sustainability policy pursuing multiple, mutually connected sustainable development goals.

enlarge the image: Coloured graphic showing the connections of connected natural commons
Graphic: ECO-N


ECO-N pursues three overarching research aims:

  1. Develop an interdisciplinary understanding of how people and nature interact with regard to natural commons. To this end, doctoral researchers from economics, natural and life sciences will study specific natural commons related to atmosphere and biodiversity.
  2. Develop synthesised knowledge on connected sustainability concerns. Doctoral and postdoctoral researchers will identify and understand connections and trade-offs between utilising different natural commons related to atmosphere and biodiversity, and they will develop skills and insights that help clarifying and potentially overcoming the complications in the sustainable development agenda.
  3. Develop instruments and mechanisms for the sustainable use of natural commons. Collaborating within ECO-N, the doctoral and postdoctoral researchers develop or adapt a variety of approaches applicable to specific natural commons, transfer this knowledge to other natural commons, and conceive ways to tackle connected sustainability concerns.

The focus of ECO-N is on common-pool resources, short ‘commons’. We describe the dynamics of commons by stock variables that are capable, under favourable conditions, of producing a maximum quantity of a flow variable without harming the stock of the resource system itself. The pattern of using natural commons affects these stock variables and thus the benefits (or damages) derived from the natural commons in the future. Understanding these dynamics requires both a natural science perspective that studies how the stock variable(s) describing the natural commons develop in response to different use patterns as well as an economic approach that studies the costs and benefits of using natural commons, and the incentives to use natural commons in alternative settings.

Within interdisciplinary collaborative projects (ICPs), two to four doctoral researchers from economics and natural or life sciences will focus on prime examples of natural commons related to atmosphere on the one hand – namely aerosol concentration, regional climate, and urban air – and biodiversity – namely forests and soils, on the other hand, with advisors from the different fields of  research. The doctoral researchers will study these natural commons from their disciplinary perspectives, and on that basis develop a common and interdisciplinary understanding of the interaction between economic activities and natural dynamics. A common methodological basis, using models and statistical analysis, will facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration.

In contrast to most of the economy, where property rights over private goods and resources define clear boundaries, nature is mostly without such boundaries: ecosystems and the atmosphere exchange organisms, substances, and energy. Thus, even if a particular natural asset is privately owned (such as agricultural land or private forest), it is not only the owner of the natural asset who benefits from it.

The connectivity of different natural commons will be a core focus of synthesis research within ECO-N. Bringing together the expertise of the different doctoral and postdoctoral researchers with respect to ‘their’ natural commons, and including international experts, ECO-N will provide a unique opportunity for an in-depth understanding of the trade-offs and potential synergies of using different, and yet connected, natural commons. This knowledge about connectivity of natural commons, and the methodical skills of analysing connected natural commons will contribute to advancing the understanding of how to achieve a transformation to sustainable development with multiple Sustainable Development Goals that are also interrelated.

ECO-N considers an open-minded, broad range of economic measures to meet the demands of sustainably managing connected natural commons. ECO-N will study market-based instruments that steer individual, self-regarding behavior on markets, and also other approaches of collective decision making. Besides governmental intervention of different kind (e.g., in form of command-and-control, or the implementation of market-based instruments), the scope of instruments and mechanisms includes the formation of cooperatives, individual property rights and liability, and the provision of natural or human-made commons by private firms.

ECO-N will assess different approaches of using the natural commons from the perspectives of economic efficiency and distributional equity, addressing the question who benefits and who loses when changing from one approach to another one. Efficiency assessments will be based on economic valuation of the various benefits derived from the natural commons. The other key question on distributive equity is how different mechanisms and instruments of using natural commons interact with economic inequality. As for many natural commons the current patterns of use have long-term consequences, a focus will be on the assessment of how users from older, younger, and future generations will be affected by changing the patterns of use.

Interdisciplinary Collaborative Projects

Two to four doctoral researchers from different disciplines will closely interact within interdisciplinary collaborative projects to study specific natural commons related to atmosphere (e.g. urban air quality, aerosol concentrations, regional climate extremes) and biodiversity (e.g. forests, soils). Exemplary research questions and approaches for interdisciplinary collaborative projects are presented below.

Next to CO2, aerosols are the most important driver of anthropogenic climate change. The ICP Aerosols will study how the climate-related impacts of aerosols affect the economy and how they should be reflected in climate policy. The ICP will, on the one hand, quantify the relevance, and optimal future emission pathways, within an integrated assessment framework, and, on the other hand, identify economic impacts on financial markets of climate effects by aerosol emissions. It comprises three PhD projects in meteorology (advisor Johannes Quaas), integrated assessment modelling (advisor Thomas Bruckner), and climate finance (advisor Gregor Weiß).

Finde more information here


What are the distributional effects of adaptation to future "record-shattering" heat waves?

"Record-shattering" heat waves affect people differently, depending on their age, health status, and wealth, and also depending on private adaptation measures, such as relocating to cooler areas or residential air conditioning. The ICP aims to assess and quantify the distributional effects of these heat-waves. A PhD project in climate attribution (advisor Sebastian Sippel) aims to understand drivers of heat waves and to estimate the regional risk for future record-shattering heat waves. The other PhD project in environmental macroeconomics (advisor Thomas Steger) will develop a climate-macroeconomic model with heterogeneous households to study the individually and regionally heterogeneous consequences of adapting to, and suffering from, heat-waves.

Find more information here


How can we explain within-city differences in air quality and socio-economic outcomes?

With cities currently housing half of the world’s population, clean urban air is a prime example of a natural commons. Polluted air constitutes an economic “bad” that affects all inhabitants in the area, which makes it vital for policymakers to understand its interaction with socio-economic conditions. The ICP combines a PhD project in atmospheric air quality modelling (advisor Ina Tegen), a PhD project in urban economics (advisor Melanie Krause) and a PhD project in econometrics (advisor Bernd Süßmuth) to study how historical air quality shapes contemporary socio-economic outcomes, for example where in cities rich and where poor households live, and to analyse how home-ownership and land use affect local air quality in cities.

Find more information here


Biodiverse soils are essential for the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems and can provide multiple benefits to society. The ICP Soils strives to uncover the links between soil biodiversity, soil multifunctionality, and human benefits, and to analyse how management of (agricultural) soils affects these links. It aims to elicit preferences of different societal groups for soil biodiversity and multifunctionality, and study the consequences for the property rights regimes and policy frameworks to protect managed soils. It includes a PhD project in soil ecology (advisor Nico Eisenhauer) and one PhD project on the economic value of multifunctional soils (advisor Bartosz Bartkowski).

Find more information here


Elements of optimal forest management for the provision of private and common-pool services

In addition to timber and biomass, forests also provide multiple ‘common-good’ forest services, which contribute to the well-being of many people. These include

  • the sequestration and storage of atmospheric carbon,
  • noise reduction in cities,
  • buffering of climate extremes and
  • climate cooling, as well as
  • the provision of habitat for a large fraction of our biodiversity.

The ICP Forests combines expertise in


  • forest biodiversity (advisor Christian Wirth),
  • bioenergy systems (advisor Daniela Thrän),
  • forest modelling (advisor Nadja Rüger), and
  • forest resource economics (advisor Martin Quaas)

to integratively assess the private and common-pool benefits of forest services (FS) and the sustainability of alternative forest management approaches, using empirical observations and integrated ecological-economic modeling.

We will study how the trade-offs and synergies between private (timber, fuelwood yield) and common-pool FS (recreation, biodiversity maintenance, carbon storage) play out in different institutional settings of private and communal forests and geographic or socio-economic context.

Find more information here



ECO-N will enable the early-career researchers to adopt a systems perspective and obtain insights into the connectivity among the different natural commons. This is key to dealing with multiple, intertwined sustainable development goals and providing an understanding of the challenges and opportunities for the sustainable use of connected natural commons. ECO-N builds on the expertise of sDiv, the internationally recognised synthesis centre of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), where five of the ECO-N PLs are members. We will implement synthesis working groups. ECO-N project leaders and postdocs from different disciplines, and external experts from all over the world, are invited to contribute their data and insights, and especially the doctoral researchers in ECO-N are encouraged to participate in these working groups.

Economic analysis of common pool resources usually focuses on particular physical resources and human institutions related to the use of both, natural commons and human-made commons, such as public infrastructure. From an overall sustainability perspective, the connectivity of different common pool resources comes into focus. This includes the question how patterns of using and maintaining different natural commons lead to synergies and trade-offs in their use and management. A second focus is on the connectivity between natural and human-made commons, such as between urban air quality and the urban transport infrastructure in extent and type (roads, public transport, or bicycle lanes). A synthesis question is, under which conditions free-riding incentives offset or amplify each other if commons are connected.

Economic inequality is interrelated with natural commons and environmental policy both in terms of the costs and benefits of providing and maintaining natural commons. We plan to study, at multiple scales, how access to natural commons affects economic inequality – i.e., whether or not it is over-proportionally beneficial for economically disadvantaged individuals. Moreover, almost every natural commons is multifunctional: They do not only provide benefits for many people, they also contribute to human well-being in different ways. We specifically plan to construct multifunctionality indices that adequately capture the degree of evenness in the distribution of multiple functions to assess how multifunctionality affects different users of natural commons.

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