PhD position: Negotiating Landscape Transitions for Net-Zero Carbon in Zürich

Studierende finden an der ETH Zürich ein Umfeld, das eigenständiges Denken fördert, Forschende ein Klima, das zu Spitzenleistungen inspiriert.


100%, Zurich, fixed-term

The Ecosystem Management group at ETH Zurich is offering a 4-year PhD position to explore options and test scenarios for landscape transitions within the frame of delivering land-based contributions to national net-zero carbon ambitions. The project includes collaboration with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and Bangor University in Wales.

Project background

Many countries in Europe have pledged to deliver on net-zero carbon targets by 2050 or earlier. Land use and landscape governance provide opportunities to contribute to these targets through changes in land cover and land management. Such opportunities include changes in agricultural processes and practices, forest and woodland establishment and restoration, and peatland rehabilitation. To deliver just transitions that accommodate the interests and needs of a diverse set of stakeholders, such actions need to be negotiated across stakeholder interests, and in full recognition of the multiple trade-offs and conflicts that exist. This requires mechanisms for collective engagement across sectoral interests and across social and governance hierarchies.

This project aims to

  1. Identify and understand the visions that different stakeholders have for landscape futures.
  2. Collate and synthesise existing evidence on changes in selected ecosystem functions (e.g., carbon sequestration and storage, hydrological flows, biodiversity) following land cover change.
  3. Drawing on (1) and (2), build participatory landscape transition models to explore and evaluate alternative landscape transition scenarios.

Our project aims to integrate stakeholder interpretations of, and aspirations for, current and future landscapes (Objective 1) with spatially explicit ecological knowledge (Objective 2) to construct participatory models (Objective 3) through which stakeholders can collaboratively design, test and evaluate options for landscape transitions. We will use the Companion Modelling approach and will draw on extensive ecological models and databases to construct participatory modelling platforms in the form of Role-Playing Games by which to elicit and explore scenarios of landscape change. Such scenarios will additionally be framed by proposed policy, governance, and financing concepts.

The broader context is the delivery of net-zero carbon futures through land-based approaches, and specifically through the management of upland landscapes in Scotland and Wales. The upland regions of the UK offer the best prospects for forest establishment (for the purposes of timber production, ecosystem service provision, and biodiversity), but also include extensive areas of carbon-rich peatlands, and a variety of other land use interests including hill farming and sporting and recreational activities. Trade-offs among these different land uses provide a complex and challenging arena for deliberation, but one that is also rich in opportunities for developing integrated and participatory landscape visioning and planning processes.


The project will draw on natural and social science approaches to interpret and negotiate possible futures through participatory modelling. We will, in selected upland regions in Scotland and Wales, integrate existing datasets and process-based models with social knowledge to design and build interactive ‘role-playing game’ models. These participatory landscape models allow strategies towards desired possible futures to be explored, evaluated, and negotiated across a range of stakeholder interests. Using these approaches, we will test different hypothetical interventions (e.g., policies, financial structures, or management propositions), and will visualise outcomes that result from the behaviours and decisions of participating stakeholders.

Through an iterative process of biophysical and participatory modelling, we will identify and refine options for, and likely outcomes of, different implementation pathways in the context of policy, governance, and management approaches to landscapes. Working across broad stakeholder representation, the project will build and apply deliberative platforms that facilitate the emergence of negotiated solutions for future landscape transitions, while generating new knowledge on the functioning of socio-ecological upland landscapes.

Job description

You should expect to conduct research on the three aims given above. This will require application of Companion Modelling approaches (for which training will be provided), and extended periods of field-based work in Scotland and Wales. You will work with academics and practitioners, drawing on their knowledge and expertise to develop synthetic understanding of socioecological complexities. This will include the use of social science methods, including Q-sort, and syntheses of natural science evidence and models on ecosystem dynamics. You should expect to integrate social and natural understanding into a participatory role-playing game model through which different scenarios with a variety of stakeholders will be elicited and tested. The student will be supported by supervisors providing expertise in both natural and social science approaches, and in Companion Modelling methods. It is also expected that you will interact with other academics as necessary, as well as stakeholders and representative bodies in Scotland and Wales.


  • 4-year PhD position, based at the Ecosystem Management group at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.
  • The position will include extended periods (weeks to months) of field work in Scotland and Wales, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and Bangor University.
  • Supervision will be provided by Prof. Jaboury Ghazoul and Dr. Anne Dray (ETH Zurich), with co-supervision from Dr. Sophie Wynne-Jones and Prof. John Healey (Bangor), and Prof. Marc Metzger (Edinburgh).
  • ETH Zurich PhD students are offered a highly competitive 4-year salary on the . This is to cover living costs in Zurich and the UK. An additional budget for field expenses will be provided.
  • There will be a requirement to take courses at ETH Zurich as part of the PhD training programme, and this will include training in Companion Modelling.
Your profile

The following attributes, qualifications, and experience would be highly advantageous:

  • A Masters degree (essential) in Ecology, Environmental Science, Geography, or an applied Social Science (or related) field. 
  • Experience in stakeholder engagement processes, including conducting interviews and facilitating discussions.
  • Experience with natural science data sets and their interpretation.
  • Understanding of conceptual modelling approaches, particularly in the context of socioecological systems.
  • Ability to work independently, especially during extended periods of field-based work.
  • Excellent communication and engagement skills.
  • Excellent knowledge of English, both spoken and written.
  • A Swiss, EU, or UK full driving licence.
  • Spoken German and/or French would be helpful, but not essential.

Owing to regular travel requirements between Switzerland and the UK, the position would be most suited to Swiss, EU, or UK applicants. Other applicants are welcome to apply, but would need proof of residence and work permits prior to the start of the PhD.

ETH Zurich
ETH Zurich is one of the world’s leading universities specialising in science and technology. We are renowned for our excellent education, cutting-edge fundamental research and direct transfer of new knowledge into society. Over 30,000 people from more than 120 countries find our university to be a place that promotes independent thinking and an environment that inspires excellence. Located in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, we work together to develop solutions for the global challenges of today and tomorrow.

We look forward to receiving your online application with the following documents:

  • Motivation letter (1-page) providing information on relevant skills and experience, and reasons for applying for the position
  • CV, including qualifications, past academic and professional experience, and publications
  • Names and contact details of two referees

The selection process is based on a motivation letter, CV, and interview for shortlisted candidates. The deadline for applications is September 30, 2021. We expect the position to start on January 1, 2022, though earlier start is possible.

Please note that we exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or postal services will not be considered.

Further information about the Ecosystem Management group can be found on our website . Questions regarding the position should be directed to Prof. Jaboury Ghazoul, (no applications).

In line with our values, ETH Zurich encourages an inclusive culture. We promote equality of opportunity, value diversity and nurture a working and learning environment in which the rights and dignity of all our staff and students are respected. Visit our to find out how we ensure a fair and open environment that allows everyone to grow and flourish.

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