Is Credit Stacking All It's Cracked Up to Be?


LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 16, 2010) — If you restore a stream, can you sell the individual environmental functions you restored separately? Carbon to one buyer, water quality to another, habitat to a third?

While the controversial practice of “stacking” wetland, carbon and stream credits seems to benefit the public images of politicians as well as the pockets of the environmental credit community, there is very little hard data on its ecological or economic consequences.

University of Kentucky geography professor Morgan Robertson, University of North Carolina's Martin Doyle and Indiana University's Rebecca Lave will be answering some tough questions about the $700 million-a-year industry.

The National Science Foundation accepted the trio’s proposal, "The Emerging Commodity of Restored Streams: Science, Policy, and Economics in New Markets for Ecosystem Service Commodities" Feb. 4 and awarded the team $600,000 for further research.

"I’m extremely pleased that Drs. Doyle, Lave and I have been chosen to receive this grant," said Robertson. "We proposed something considerably more interdisciplinary than is usual, even for geography." 

Doyle is a stream geomorphologist, Lave studies the practices of scientists and has a background in stream restoration and Robertson studies market-based environmental politics and wetland botany. 

The research team will attempt to define the ecological, economic and political groups that truly profit from green credits. "A private industry has sprung up composed of people who restore streams in advance and then sell 'credits' to people who need to compensate for stream impacts," he explained.

In addition to questions surrounding the benefits of single environmental credit transfers, many environmental "bankers" offer multiple credits from a solitary restoration project. Robertson will determine if these businesses are double dipping.  

"This research is a vital part of the work that will ensure that such markets actually achieve environmental goals (such as reducing carbon), as opposed to simply generating profit for investors," Robertson explained.

The NSF grant will be jointly funded by the Geography and Spatial Sciences Program, the Geomorphology and Land-Use Dynamics Program, the Geosciences Program and the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Programs.

"It was a real challenge to frame the research in a way that makes it through the various sieves that any competitive granting process imposes on ambitious work," Robertson said. "These types of questions require the confluence of ecology, geomorphology and political study…and such intersections are where geography flourishes."

For more information on the NSF grant, contact Robertson at