Adaptive management of natural habitats

Climate impacts
Non-impact specific
Biodiversity, Cross-sector, Forestry, Marine and fisheries
IPCC category
Institutional: Government policies and programmes, Structural and physical: Ecosystem-based adaptation options
Photo by Raimond Klavins


In terms of habitat creation and maintenance, there has been a decreasing trend at the global level over the last 50 years, based on the extent of suitable habitat and biodiversity intactness (IPBES, 2019). Habitat fragmentation and loss, compounded by environmental stressors, such as pollution, the spread of invasive species and overharvest, are lessening the capacity of many species and ecosystems to cope with new or additional climate-related stresses (IUCN, 2016). Climate change affects individual species and the interactions between organisms and their habitats. This alters the structure and function of ecosystems and the ability of natural systems to provide goods and services to society (IPBES, 2019). 

Resilient ecosystems and ecosystem services depend on complex, dynamic relationships between species and habitats. These relationships are influenced by factors such as climate change impacts and socio-economic pressures, and their associated uncertainties, which must be considered when dealing with biodiversity and habitats management. For these reasons, a dynamic, adaptive management approach is best to conserve biodiversity and maintain the provision of ecosystem services. 

Adaptive management is a structured, iterative process of optimal management decision-making in the face of uncertainty, based on system monitoring. It builds in steps to assess progress towards achieving specified conservation goals and targets through monitoring actions, to see whether or not management actions are achieving habitat targets. It is based on a learning process, aiming to improve management outcomes by continuously adapting approaches, actions and measures on the basis of lessons learned (EC, 2013). 

In the context of climate change, adaptive management has four main steps: (1) analysis of potential climate impacts and associated uncertainty; (2) design and implementation of actions to cope with these impacts; (3) monitoring of climate-sensitive species, habitat, ecosystem services and processes to evaluate management effectiveness; and (4) redesign and implementation of improved (or new) management actions (Climate-ADAPT, 2019). 

The effectiveness of adaptive management of natural systems under climate change conditions depends on several factors:

  • Flexibility. Adaptive management requires an understanding that natural processes are dynamic and that species are expected to respond individually to climate change effects, and thus, habitat management needs to be flexible, adaptive and specific. Flexibility includes responding to changing conservation priorities (due to climate change) and learning from experiences at local, regional, national and international levels by adapting conservation targets from different conventions, conservation mechanisms and conservation plans. 
  • Mainstreaming. The principles of adaptive management should be mainstreamed into other management plans and land use strategies to support the natural development of climate resilient ecosystems and promote the services they can provide also in the perspective of climate change adaptation. 
  • Stakeholder engagement. The engagement of stakeholders to illustrate and discuss consequences of different management options for species and ecosystems increases the acceptance of adaptive management actions. 
  • Monitoring. Targeted monitoring of climate change impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as integration of results into management processes, is essential to continually improve adaptive management decisions.

Actions to support transformative change in adaptive management at the local level include enabling locally tailored choices, promoting public access to relevant information, raising awareness on the principles of adaptive management, and piloting and testing well-designed policy innovations (IPBES, 2019).

Costs and benefits

The costs of adaptive management of natural habitats under climate change vary depending on the stage of the process and measures being implemented. These can include: (1) costs for undertaking studies on climate scenarios, climate change impacts and biodiversity vulnerabilities, (2) costs on defining solutions and planning adaptation, (3) costs for implementation, and (4) costs for monitoring the effects of the implemented measures.

In terms of benefits, adaptive management of natural habitats supports biodiversity and ecosystem services (e.g., green and blue infrastructure can support the improvement of ecosystem connectivity and decrease the vulnerability to heatwaves in urban areas). It increases species resilience and improves the adaptive capacity of natural systems, which in turn reduce climate risks for the human society. For example, coastal wetlands and seagrasses in coastal waters can significantly reduce the risks from coastal flooding and erosion. Further, resilient ecosystems provide provision services (e.g., fisheries) that have monetary benefits for communities, as well as cultural services; both of which may lead to economic gains from tourism. 

Implementation time and lifetime

Implementation time: The definition and development of an adaptive management plan can done in short time, depending also on the level of stakeholder consultation (e.g., 1-3 years), whereas the timeframe for implementation is highly dependent on the measures selected.

Lifetime: As it is an iterative process, adaptive management requires continuous planning, implementing, monitoring and reviewing. The lifetime or duration of specific adaptation measures depends on their typologies and maintenance requirements.

Source for more detailed information

Climate-ADAPT, 2019, Adaptive management of natural habitats,

EC, 2013, EU Guidelines on climate change and Natura 2000,

IPBES, 2019, The global assessment report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Summary for Policymakers, 

IUCN, 2016, Adapting to Climate Change: Guidance for protected area managers and planners,

LIFE ADAPTAMED Protection of key ecosystem services by adaptive management of Climate Change endangered Mediterranean socioecosystems,