Thesis Topics Environmental Economics and Natural Resources

In general, students are expected to choose their own thesis topic, but we can assist you in defining it more specifically. On this page you can find a number of environmental economic issues, and the staff members involved in these topics. This list is not exhaustive, so if you have a thesis idea that is not included, don't hesitate to propose it! For more information on writing a thesis at the Environmental Economics and Natural Resources Group you can contact Silke Gabbert.

Tragedy of the commons vs. Tragedy of the commune (supervised by Andries Richter)

Environmental problems can be solved in many ways. Typically, the government or some other form of authority sets rules with corresponding fines that need to be obeyed. While such solution may be effective in addressing polluting industries, it is often not feasible (or desirable) to have regulation targeted at private individuals for minor offences such as throwing empty plastic bags or soft drink cans on the street. Nonetheless, very few individuals would throw garbage on the street or tolerate such behavior, as there are very strong social norms not to do so – at least in some parts of society. Obviously, there are cases when such norms break down or actions and social norms are in disarray. The aim of this project is to analyze whether social norms can mitigate environmental problems in daily life and how informal arrangements, such as social disapproval among peers play a role in this. The main idea is to apply Ostrom’s framework that has been developed for resource systems (Ostrom, 2007, 2009) in a different context. The study case will be student houses that tend to be – very much like in resource systems – microcosm consisting of individuals who free ride on efforts of other (such as cleaning or shopping duties). The main goal is therefore to analyze whether the Tragedy of the Commons is also a Tragedy of the Commune (Mause, 2008).

This project requires the student to visit student houses in order to collect data and perform statistical analyses. Knowledge in statistical software (e.g. Stata, Eviews, or R) would be good.


Mause, K. (2008) The Tragedy of the Commune: Learning from worst-case scenarios. The Journal of Socio-Economics 37, 308-327.

Ostrom, E. (2007) A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 15181-15187.

Ostrom, E. (2009) A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science 325, 419-422.

For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter.

Globalization, Roving bandits, and marine resources (supervised by Andries Richter)

In their highly influential policy paper, Berkes et al. (2006) have postulated that the widespread overexploitation of marine resource is mostly fueled by highly mobile fishing fleets from the industrialized world moving like “roving bandits” from sea to sea, leaving behind poverty and empty oceans. While anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that there is some merit in Berkes’ analysis of the problem, profound empirical analysis is so far lacking. The goal of this project is to investigate whether more empirical evidence can be found supporting (or rejecting) the notion of roving bandits.
This project requires the student to dig into the databases of FAO, OECD and perform large scale statistical analyses. Sound knowledge of statistics (using software like STATA, R, or Eviews) is essential.

Berkes, F., Hughes, T.P., Steneck, R.S., Wilson, J.A., Bellwood, D.R., Crona, B., Folke, C., Gunderson, L.H., Leslie, H.M., Norberg, J., Nystrom, M., Olsson, P., Osterblom, H., Scheffer, M., Worm, B. (2006) Globalization, Roving Bandits, and Marine Resources. Science 311, 1557-1558.
For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter.

The economics of overfishing and poverty traps (jointly supervised by Andries Richter (ENR) and Janneke Pieters (DEC))

In many regions of the world, small-scale fisheries contribute substantially to household income and food provision. Typically, these fisheries are unmanaged and left to open access, effectively offering an employment of last resort. Therefore, those fisheries have an important function to alleviate poverty. However, as more individuals pursue fishing as an economic activity, pressure on the resource base increases, potentially leading to overfishing and low catches and low profits in the long run. Therefore, a vicious cycle between poverty and overfishing may lead to a poverty trap.

Whether such poverty trap persists depends on several factors. First, the general equilibrium effects of overfishing need to be considered. In particular, it is unclear how sales prices and wages obtained outside the fishery respond to individuals entering (or leaving) a fishery. Second, overfishing may lead to reallocation of labor at the household level. To compensate for low income from the fishery, other household members (women or children) may enter the labor market, which may aggravate or alleviate poverty.

Another concern is price volatility in the fish market. If there is limited communication infrastructure, fishermen are unable to observe prices across geographically distinct markets. With high transportation costs, they can visit only one market per day, while storage may not be possible at all. As a result, the quantity supplied to a specific market is determined almost entirely by the amount of fish caught near that market. Prices are therefore highly volatile, which translates into highly uncertain incomes for fishermen. This uncertainty can affect the labor supplied by different household member in different activities, for example when female labor supply is used as an insurance mechanism.

The questions raised above could be analyzed empirically, but also in a theoretical model. Potential applications could be India or West Africa.

For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter.

Anticipating collapses in social-ecological systems (supervised by Andries Richter)

Social-ecological systems tend to undergo gradual changes, but also drastic punctual transitions. The idea that ecosystems and social systems are both prone to collapse has been manifested in Jared Diamond´s book Collapse. The goal of this project is to investigate whether such collapse can be anticipated and potentially be prevented. Following the theoretical model developed by Richter& Dakos (2014), the student will look into historic resource collapses and try to detect statistical signatures that could have provided early warning signals in anticipation of an upcoming collapse.

This project requires the student to dig into various databases and perform large scale statistical analyses. Sound knowledge of Matlab or R is essential.

For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter.

The evolution of social norms for cooperative resource harvesting (supervised by Andries Richter)

One of the key properties of social-ecological system is that social and natural processes are intrinsically linked and mutually influence each other. Marine systems, for example, are highly affected – or even shaped – by fishing activity. Fishermen, on their side, adapt their fishing practices to any changes that may occur below the water. In reality, the story is even more complicated, because resource users (such as fishermen) are embedded in a social context and tend to make decisions contingent on what people around them do. Restraining fishing activity, for instance, is generally perceived to be acceptable if everybody else follows suit. But no one wants to be the sucker that is being taken advantage of. How does this fragile social structure interact with any changes that may occur in the natural system? The goal of this project is to use evolutionary game theory to understand under which conditions cooperative harvesting norms emerge. Building upon prior work by Richter and Grasman (2013); Richter et al. (2013); and Sethi and Somanathan (1996), the project will analyze how resource scarcity promotes or hinders cooperation. In particular, it will be considered whether the social norm to approve or disapprove of others will depend on resource scarcity.
This project requires theoretical modeling. A good understanding of mathematical modeling is a must and prior knowledge of Matlab would definitely help.

Richter, A., Grasman, J. (2013) The transmission of sustainable harvesting norms when agents are conditionally cooperative. Ecological Economics 93, 202-209.

Richter, A., van Soest, D., Grasman, J. (2013) Contagious cooperation, temptation, and ecosystem collapse. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 66, 141-158.

Sethi, R., Somanathan, E. (1996) The Evolution of Social Norms in Common Property Resource Use. American Economic Review 86, 766-788.

For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter.

Cod crash investigation – The collapse of the newfoundland cod fishery (supervised by Andries Richter)

In 1992, the Newfoundland cod fishery crashed and up to today never recovered. The consequences where devastating for local communities. An entire industry was wiped out and about 10,000 people lost their jobs. How is it possible that such a large and important fishery just hit the wall at full speed? The goal of this project is to unravel this unfortunate chain of events that has led to the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery.

This project requires digging into published and unpublished reports to understand better the economic context of the cod crash. Ideally, economic and biological data will be analyzed jointly, in order to understand how biological and economic forces have contributed to the unfortunate fate of Newfoundland cod.

For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter.

Does the environment shape behavior? (supervised by Andries Richter

This project analyzed behavior in a small community where at least some individuals rely on a natural resource for a living, such as agriculture, but also forests or fisheries. It will be investigated whether there are systematic differences in the way individuals in those communities perceive and cope with risks with the goal to understand how it is linked to the environmental system (Nguyen and Leung, 2010).
This project will have to be carried out in a field setting, ideally in an environment where the candidate has been or worked before. The project required data collection in the field and statistical analysis using relevant software (e.g. Stata, R, Eviews).

Nguyen, Q., Leung, P. (2010) How nurture can shape preferences: an experimental study on risk preferences of Vietnamese fishers. Environment and Development Economics 15, 609-631.
For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter

Bsc topic suggestions by Andries Richter

  • Literature review on endogenous preferences.
  • Literature review on risk preferences and risk perception in Fisheries.
  • Literature review on using behavioral economics in the management of renewable natural resources (e.g. Fisheries).
  • Literature review on Transformations in resource management / social ecological systems
  • Literature review on coupled economic and ecological drivers in the Arctic
  • Literature review on the role of leadership and agents of change in resource management / social-ecological systems

For more information, please contact Dr. Andries Richter.

Socio-economic assessment of testing strategies for nanoparticles

Nanoparticles have become widely used in, for example, consumer products, food, packaging materials, textiles, or health supplements. Given their specific properties the use of nanoparticles is considered to generate enormous benefits to society. The hazardous properties and, hence, the risks to human health and ecosystems arising from an exposure to nanoparticles, are still incompletely understood. Testing provides information about the hazardous properties of nanoparticles and is, therefore, the usual starting point of any risk assessment.The aim of the MSc project is to develop a socio-economic approach for evaluating tests and testing strategies for hazard assessment of nanoparticles that accounts for test uncertainty. The research focuses on developing a cost-effectiveness analysis approach for assessing the relative performance of different tests used for hazard assessment. In addition, the approach will be applied to an illustrative example of the testing of silver nanoparticles.

For more information on the socio-economic assessment of testing strategies for nanoparticles please see here and contact dr. Silke Gabbert.

Economic (e)valuation of laboratory animal welfare

The new European chemicals legislation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals explicitly supports the reduction and replacement of animal testing. Current testing schemes, however, are still largely based on laboratory experiments where large numbers of laboratory animals are used (in vivo tests). Addressing the problem how animal welfare concerns can be operationalized for developing new, more efficient testing strategies requires to develop approaches (tools) for evaluating the welfare loss caused to laboratory animals. The MSc project will explore economic approaches for the valuation of laboratory animal welfare. The approaches can then be applied in a case study in order to analyse the impact of including animal welfare loss in decision-support tools such as, for example, a cost-effectiveness analysis.

For more information on the economic valuation of laboratory animal welfare please contact dr. Silke Gabbert.

Approaches for transforming environmental impacts of chemicals into values for decision-making

Under the new European chemicals legislation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) chemicals of very high concern (particularly toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals) can only be placed on the market if its use is explicitly authorised by the European Commission. Applying for an authorisation requires that a company provides a socio-economic assessment (SEA) showing that the benefits of use outweigh the potential negative (human health and/or environmental) impacts of the chemical. The MSc project will explore how negative environmental impacts arising from the use of chemicals can be monetarised in order include these values in a standard cost-benefit analysis. The student will investigate if – and to what extent - existing of approaches for monetarising negative impacts as used in other risk management domains (water management, human health care, traffic) can be used or need to be modified. The valuation approaches identified will be applied to selected chemicals as a case study. In addition, the student will develop a database format for transforming environmental impacts into monetary values in order to support data compilation and the identification of existing data gaps.
For more information on approaches for transforming environmental impacts of chemicals into values for decision-making please contact dr. Silke Gabbert.

Climate Change

  • How are the costs and benefits of climate policy distributed?
  • How can we develop cost-effective climate policy?
  • How can we balance concerns of cost-effectiveness or efficiency with concerns of equity and fairness?
  • How can we take into consideration the various uncertainties and irreversibilities in climate policy?
  • How can we make the emissions trading system work efficiently?
  • Would a carbon tax be better than a cap-and-trade system?

Techniques often used in such analyses include game theory to analyze strategic behaviour of countries in international negotiations, or general equilibrium modelling to analyze the effect of different policy scenarios on the economy.
For more information on the economics of climate change you can contact prof. Ekko van Ierland.

Student wanted: Discounting climate change

The influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Changefor the British government, released on 30 October 2006, started a revival of the debate on discounting the future benefits of climate change mitigations. The larger the discount rate, the lower is the optimal C02 emission reduction. We are looking for a student with good mathematical skills who is interested in critically evaluating various approaches to determine the appropriate discount rate. More information: prof. Ekko van Ierland.

Biodiversity and nature conservation

Biodiversity is a broad concept. It refers to the diversity of genes, species, and ecosystems on the planet. The range of topics related to biodiversity and nature conservation is therefore very broad:

  • Development of cost-effective networks of nature reserves;
  • Monetary valuation of ecological goods and services;
  • The role of uncertainty in policy-making on biodiversity;
  • Policy instruments such as agri-environment schemes.

Research on biodiversity is likely to combine economics with insights from such disciplines as population biology, landscape ecology and genetics.

For more information on the economics of biodiversity and nature conservation you can contact dr. Hans-Peter Weikard or dr. Rolf Groeneveld.

Private conservation finance

Financial institutions (banks, insurers, pension funds) are playing a bigger and bigger role in financing conservation and restoration of natural resources. Potentially, such private investors can help local resource users and owners to bear the short-term costs necessary for the long-term benefits of restoring the resource. For example, overexploited fish stocks can only be restored by a reduction (or even cessation) of fishing. For local fishers who depend on the overexploited resource, however, this would mean a loss of livelihood that they cannot afford. Private financial institutions can alleviate this problem by providing an income to the fishers while fish stocks are allowed to rebuild. When stocks are rebuilt, they should theoretically be able to repay the private financial institutions. If all goes well, fishers would enjoy an improved livelihood while investors have made a profitable investment. Nevertheless, the concept has attracted substantial criticism, and its success depends on a host of biological and institutional factors.

A BSc student could make an inventory of the arrangements currently applied, and the conditions for success. This work will mostly entail a literature review. This BSc student would need to have done at least one of the introductory courses in economics, such as Environmental Economics for Environmental Sciences (ENR-21306) or Environmental Economics and Environmental Policy (ENR-20306). Advanced courses like Economics and Management of Natural Resources (ENR-31306) or Cost-Benefit Analysis and Environmental Valuation (DEC-31306), or knowledge of finance (options, futures, etc.) will also be helpful, but are not essential.

An MSc student could, for example, analyse under what conditions a partnership between resource users, financial institutions, and other parties (like NGOs or governments) for resource restoration is attractive for all parties involved. This work is most likely to be a model study, with possible interviews or consultations with NGOs or researchers at other chair groups or research institutes in ecology, biology, or nature conservation. This MSc student would need to have done at least one of the introductory courses in economics, such as Environmental Economics for Environmental Sciences (ENR-21306) or Environmental Economics and Environmental Policy (ENR-20306), and be able to develop models in R, Matlab, or Python. Advanced courses like Economics and Management of Natural Resources (ENR-31306) or Cost-Benefit Analysis and Environmental Valuation (DEC-31306), or knowledge of finance (options, futures, etc.) will also be helpful, but are not essential.

Further reading:
Little, L. R. et al. 2014. Environmental Derivatives, Risk Analysis, and Conservation Management. Conservation Letters 7:196-207

Cost-benefit analysis and monetary valuation of the environment

Cost-benefit analysis is a policy evaluation tool that is increasingly used to assess big public projects with serious environmental and social effects. Examples of these are highways, railroads, coastal protection, and big irrigation projects. What distinguishes cost-benefit analysis from other methods is its explicit aim to express all relevant effects in monetary terms. This means that a cost-benefit analysis takes into account not only the finencial costs and benefits, but also, for example:

  • The change in the quality of local residents' living environment, as reflected by the change in house prices
  • The change in tourism benefits, as related to what visitors will spend more or less in travel costs to visit the area
  • How much stakeholders should be paid to be compensated for any loss in environmental quality, as measured in a survey

Full cost-benefit analyses are expensive and labour intensive, so performing a complete cost-benefit analysis for your thesis may not be realistic. What a thesis on cost-benefit analysis could involve is the development, exercise, and analysis of a valuation survey, or a thorough literature research on the monetary value of some environmental effect or ecosystem service. Only if the topic is not too big, and data are readily available, could a cost-benefit analysis be the topic of your thesis.
For more information on cost-benefit analysis and monetary valuation you can contact dr. Rolf Groeneveld.

Biotechnology and bioenergy

Modern biotechnology (including the use GMOs and bioenergy) offers solutions for many environmental and nutritional problems. The technologies are not undisputed, and many of the concerns include environmental risks. Environmental-economic research into biotechnology and bioenergy addresses such topics as:

  • The expected environmental costs and benefits of transgenic crops;
  • Assessment of irreversible benefits costs of transgenic crops;
  • The economic value of animal genetic resources;
  • Political economy of biotechnology and bioenergy
  • Economics and policy of regulating new technologies (e.g. Cartagena Protocol);
  • Contribution to health and nutrition (biofortification).

A thesis on transgenic crops could apply theories on decision-making under uncertainty to policies regulating the new technology or analyze the social benefits and costs of bioenergy production. It could also, for instance, apply monetary valuation techniques to the valuation of consumer concerns.
For more information on the economics and policy of biotechnology and bioenergy you can contact prof. Ekko van Ierland.

Non-renewable resources and waste management

Many of the resources we use are non-renewable. The most well-known example are fossil fuels, but another example is phosphate, which is an essential fertilizer. Because of their non-renewability, the use of such resources needs to be well-planned, taking into consideration future generations. Moreover, we need to use (and reuse, and recycle) these resources efficiently. You can therefore think of the following topics:

  • How much recycling is optimal?
  • What role can economic incentives play in stimulating people to collect waste separately?
  • What barriers exist to investments in renewable energy projects in developing countries?
  • What is the right discount rate in dealing with problems that affect future generations?

A thesis on non-renewable resources or waste management is likely to involve cost-benefit analysis, general equilibrium modelling, or other economic modelling techniques.
For more information on the economics of non-renewable resources and waste management you can contact dr. Hans-Peter Weikard.

Student wanted: Phosphorus depletion and recycling

We are looking for a student with good mathematical skills and ideally some background in dynamic optimisation who is interested in writing an MSc thesis on phosphorus depletion and recycling. Phosphorus (P) is necessary for life as a macronutrient and cannot be substituted for this use. P-fertilisers must be available to sustain soil fertility and to ensure food security. The student will do his or her research in a project that aims at designing policies for the efficient use and recycling of P resources, taking into account international and inter-generational equity.

More information: dr. Hans-Peter Weikard.

Water management

Water is everywhere, but clean water for consumption or irrigation is becoming increasingly scarce. Economic analyses of water management deal with questions such as:

  • How should water trading be organized?
  • What are the costs and benefits of water management?
  • How should international agreements on international rivers be organized?
  • How can we allocate water within river catchments efficiently?
  • What economic instruments should we use to manage water?

A student conducting an economic analysis of water management is likely to collaborate with hydrologists. He or she may develop an economic model, perform a game theoretical analysis, or conduct a monetary valuation survey.

For more information on the economics of water management you can contact dr. Xueqin Zhu

Student wanted: Water pricing and quality control

Water policies aiming at sustainable allocation and quality conservation of water becomes more and more important. The challenges in water management analysis include water pricing and dealing with externalities and compensation. We are looking for a student with good modelling skills (preferably GAMS) who is interested in the development of integrated water management models to optimize the water quantity use and to determine the optimal water quality level in a local water system. A background in hydrological cycle and economics will be helpful.

More information: dr. Xueqin Zhu.

Macro-economic issues

Many environmental problems are global or national problems. Therefore, these problems and the policies that address them have economic repercussions on a national or international scale. Macro-economic issues in environmental economics include:

  • The environmental and economic effects of 'green' taxation
  • The relation between economic growth and environmental degradation (Environmental Kuznets Curve)
  • The relation between economic growth and resource abundance (Resource Curse)
  • The role of innovation in environmental policy
  • Students working on this topic will probably use General Equilibrium models.

For more information on macro-economic issues in environmental policy you can contact prof.dr Ekko C. van Ierland.

Student wanted: Does a green tax reform offer a double dividend?

Policy analysts and politicians have been keenly interested in the possibility that a revenue-neutral green tax reform might offer a double dividend. The idea is that an environmentally oriented tax is introduced and the revenues from this tax are used to cut pre-existing distortionary taxes on labour and therefore reduces the unemployment rate. We are looking for a student with good mathematical skills who is interested in critically evaluating argument in favour and against the double dividend hypothesis.

Management of Marine Resources

  • How should multi-species fisheries be managed?
  • What role could labelling systems play in stimulating the sustainability of fisheries?
  • How can the different functions of marine ecosystems be allocated efficiently?
  • What is the economic value of goods and services of the marine environment?

For more information on the economics of marine resources you can contact dr. Rolf Groeneveld.