Ecosystem Services and Eco-compensation

Analysis of the Hotspots of Ecological Compensation Research in China in the Past 20 Years based on a Bibliometric Study

  • LIU Moucheng , 1, * ,
  • BAI Yunxiao 1, 2 ,
  • SU Boru 1, 2
  • 1. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
* LIU Moucheng, E-mail:

Received date: 2021-08-01

  Accepted date: 2021-10-13

  Online published: 2022-01-08

Supported by

The National Natural Science Foundation of China(42171279)

The Mobility Programme DFG-NSFC(M-0342)


Ecological compensation is an important part of ecological civilization which has gained widespread attention in academia in recent years. This study uses the knowledge graph tool CiteSpace to identify and analyze the literature related to ecological compensation research published in academic journals in the CNKI database, in order to provide an objective and scientific reference for the research in this field. The results show that the domestic research on ecological compensation began to appear around 2000, and the first research boom was ushered in starting in 2009. Most studies have explored ecological compensation from the connotation of ecological compensation, compensation subjects and objects, compensation standards, compensation methods, compensation supervision and evaluation of compensation effects, etc., and the articles on ecological compensation standards are relatively more abundant. At the same time, ecological compensation research is often linked to the realization of ecosystem service value and ecological product value. In the future, researchers should focus on establishing and improving the ecological compensation standard accounting system, exploring the market-based ecological compensation mechanism, attaching importance to the ecological compensation fund distribution mechanism, and strengthening research related to ecological compensation effect assessment. Ecological compensation theory should be developed in the direction of deepening and providing new research perspectives for helping China to deal with the relationship between conservation and development.

Cite this article

LIU Moucheng , BAI Yunxiao , SU Boru . Analysis of the Hotspots of Ecological Compensation Research in China in the Past 20 Years based on a Bibliometric Study[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2022 , 13(1) : 80 -92 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2022.01.009

1 Introduction

China has witnessed rapid economic development over the past decades. However, this development has come at the cost of excessive use of natural resources and damage to the ecological environment. Ecological and environmental problems have become bottlenecks that constrain further economic and social development. From a national perspective, the over exploitation and destruction of natural resources damages collective interests, while the beneficiaries of ecological protection at the expense of individual or regional interests may be spread throughout the whole country. Ecological compensation is an important approach to coordinate and balance the unequal relationships between those who protect resources on a small scale and those who enjoy the benefits on a large scale, and between those who destroy resources on a small scale and those who bear the losses on a large scale. Foreign research on ecological compensation began earlier and is generally referred to as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) (Engel et al., 2008). The most widely accepted international definition of PES, proposed by Wunder, is that PES is a voluntary transaction between the users of ecosystem services and the providers of ecosystem services and this transaction is conditional on payment for external ecosystem services in the form of agreed natural resource management (Wunder, 2007). However, in developing countries with relatively average levels of economic development, ecological compensation is more often used to regulate the relationships between the economic interests of ecological protectors, beneficiaries, and destroyers (Liu et al., 2020).
The State Council of China issued the Decision of the State Council on Further Strengthening Environmental Protection in 1990, in which the principle of ecological compensation as “whoever develops protects, whoever destroys restores, and whoever uses compensates” was first proposed. Since then, research and practice on ecological compensation mechanisms began to emerge in China (Liu and Wen, 2018). In 2005, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCED) formed the “Research Group on Ecological Compensation Mechanism and Policy in China”, headed by Academician Li Wenhua and Professor Imura of Japan. That project aims to conduct research and discussions on the establishment of a national strategy for ecological compensation and compensation policies in important areas, which has effectively led and promoted the development of domestic ecological compensation research (Task force on Eco-compensation Mechanisms and Policies, 2007). In the past three decades, ecological compensation has made great progress in China, both in terms of research and practice. In September 2015, the General Plan for the Reform of Ecological Civilization System specified the ecological compensation system as one of the eight systems for ecological civilization construction. In May 2016, the Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Sound Compensation Mechanisms for Ecological Protection (The Documents of No.31 [2016]) established the policy framework of ecological compensation in China. Since then, ecological compensation policies for wetlands, watersheds, mine restoration and other areas have been released one after another. In terms of research, many scholars have carried out extensive research on the basic theories (Gao et al., 2020), systems (Ju et al., 2018; Jiang et al., 2019), compensation standards (Wu et al., 2018) and implementation mechanisms of ecological compensation. They have made positive progress in areas such as forests (Deng et al., 2020; Lu et al., 2021), grasslands (Hu et al., 2019; Yang et al., 2021), wetlands (Xiong and Kong, 2017), watersheds (Liu et al., 2019b) and national parks. Given these developments, it is urgent to review the relevant literature in the field of ecological compensation over the past three decades from a qualitative perspective and to visualize and analyze it from a bibliometric perspective. Based on the bibliometric approach and using the visualization analysis software Citespace, this study comprehensively analyzes the development status, research hotspots and evolutionary paths of ecological compensation research in China on the basis of combing the domestic ecological compensation-related literature, so as to provide scientific reference for further strengthening ecological compensation research in China.

2 Data sources and research methods

2.1 Search strategy

The literature sources for this study were obtained from the CNKI database. The search method was set to “precise search”, the search terms were set to: topic = (payment for environmental services) or (ecological compensation) or (ecological protection compensation) or (ecological product value realization), the type of literature was set as “academic journals”, and the source categories of journals were set as SCI sources, EI sources and CSCD. The search time was set from any year up to 2021, and 1311 CNKI documents were ultimately retrieved.

2.2 Data analysis methods

CiteSpace software is a bibliometric software package developed by Prof. Chaomei Chen to present the structure, law and distribution of scientific knowledge by drawing a “knowledge graph” (Chen et al., 2015). Since its introduction into China, this software has been widely used in many disciplines to analyze subject hotspots by means of the knowledge graphs (Gong et al., 2020). All of the literature data format conversion and bibliometric analysis in this study were performed using CiteSpace.5.7.R5.
Firstly, the selected literature was exported from the CNKI database in Refworks format, and the format of the exported literature data was converted through the CNKI data processing module in CiteSpace. The time period was set to 2001-2021, and the cut-off time partition was 1 year (the search date ended on July 10, 2021). Secondly, author co-occurrence analysis, research institution co-occurrence analysis, keyword co-occurrence analysis and keyword clustering analysis were performed on the transformed data. Thirdly, the corresponding knowledge graphs were drawn to analyze the current research status and research hotspots in the field of ecological compensation. Finally, the timezone of keywords was drawn to analyze the domestic evolutionary path of ecological compensation.

3 Analysis of the current situation of

ecological compensation research

3.1 General analysis of the literature

The earliest article on ecological compensation in China retrieved by this CNKI database search was “Economic compensation for non-commercial forests” published by Song et al. (2001). Since then, the number of domestic ecological compensation research articles began to climb (Fig. 1), and can be roughly divided into the following three stages from 2001 to the present: 1) The “slow start” phase from 2001 to 2008. This was the budding stage of ecological compensation research development, and with a total of only 9 articles published in 8 years the growth rate was slow; 2) The “rapid growth” phase from 2008 to 2010. Eco-compensation research developed rapidly during this period, and the growth rate was the greatest during 2008-2009, indicating that eco-compensation had gradually received more attention from researchers during this period; 3) The “stable fluctuation” phase from 2010 to 2021, during which ecological compensation research developed steadily. After the rapid growth in the previous period, the number of eco-compensation research articles declined from 2010- 2016, then increased slightly and reached the highest value of 147 articles in 2019. Since the search date ended on July 10, 2021, the number of eco-compensation articles retrieved for the partial year of 2021 is low at only 68.
Fig. 1 Number of papers on ecological compensation. (a) The time distribution of the ecological compensation research literature; (b) Cumulative number of ecological compensation research articles.

3.2 Analysis of research institution-author collaboration networks

A co-occurrence analysis of authors was performed to obtain the author cooperation network. Figure 2 shows the top eight cooperation teams with the strongest cooperative relationships, and the frequency of authors in the figure is not less than three. The larger the node, the more articles the author has published. The author cooperation network shows that Wang Yuan (43 articles), Song Yang (42 articles), Zhang Anlu (36 articles), Jin Leshan (31 articles), and Cai Yinying (25 articles) are the top five authors. There are 27 authors, including Liu Moucheng and Ouyang Zhiyun, with 10 or more articles (Table 1), accounting for 45.2% of the total number of publications. Therefore, they are the core authors in the field of ecological compensation. The connections between nodes indicate the cooperative relationships between different authors. A thicker connection means more cooperative articles.
Fig. 2 Author cooperation network
Table 1 The core authors in ecological compensation research
Rank Author Number of
Rank Author Number of
Rank Author Number of
1 Wang Yuan 43 10 Yin Changbin 15 19 Liu Moucheng 10
2 Song Yang 42 11 Ge Yanxiang 15 20 Zhang Xiaofei 10
3 Zhang Anlu 36 12 Zheng Hua 15 21 Zhang Yu 10
4 Jin Leshan 31 13 Ouyang Zhiyun 13 22 Zhang Wei 10
5 Cai Yinying 25 14 Yan Shouguang 13 23 Peng Wenjia 10
6 Qiu Shuilin 20 15 Liu Chunla 13 24 Li Huaien 10
7 He Li 20 16 Zhao Xueyan 13 25 Li Haidong 10
8 Pang Jie 17 17 Wang Fengchun 12 26 Li Fuduo 10
9 Li Guoping 17 18 Song Bo 12 27 Pan Meichen 10
The co-occurrence analysis of the research institutions was carried out to obtain the institutional cooperation network, which shows the most cooperative teams with the closest cooperation (Fig. 3). The frequency of the research institutions shown in Fig. 3 is not less than six, and the larger the node, the greater the number of articles issued by the institution. The top five research institutions in the field of ecological compensation are “Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS” (101 articles), “University of Chinese Academy of Sciences” (79 articles), “College of Economics and Management Nefu” (50 articles), “College of Public Management of GUFE” (42 articles), and “College of Humanities and Development Studies (COHD)” (40 articles), accounting for 23.8% of the total number of articles.
Fig. 3 Institution cooperation network
This indicates that the research institutions in the field of ecological compensation are relatively concentrated, and the capacity of different research institutions varies greatly.

4 Analysis of ecological compensation research hotspots

4.1 High-frequency keyword co-occurrence analysis

In order to explore and identify the research hotspots in the field of ecological compensation research, we extracted the keywords of each article and conducted a co-occurrence analysis and a cluster analysis (Zhao et al., 2019). The co-occurrence graph of ecological compensation keywords in China (Fig. 4) shows that there are 510 nodes, 597 connections between the nodes, and the network density is 0.0046. In order to ensure the scientific nature of the analysis, the nodes “compensation standard” and “ecological compensation standard” have been combined; the nodes “ecosystem service”, “ecological service value”, etc. and “ecosystem service value” have been merged; and the nodes “PPP” and “PPP mode” have been merged. The frequency of the keywords shown in the figure is not less than six.
Fig. 4 The co-occurrence graph of keywords
The size of each node in Fig. 4 indicates the frequency of the keywords, each line between the nodes indicates the connection between the keywords, and the frequency of each keyword indicates the hotness of its research. The top 18 most frequent keywords are considered hot keywords (Table 2). The top five keywords were “Ecological compensation” (577 times), “Ecological compensation standard” (186 times), “Ecosystem service value” (167 times), “Willingness to accept” (76 times), and “China” (66 times). There are a total of three keywords with a frequency of more than 100, indicating that these three keyword topics play an important role in ecological compensation research and are the focus of scholars’ attention. Betweenness indicates the importance of a node as a bridge connecting other nodes. The top five keywords for intermediary centrality are “Sustainable development” (0.46), “Willingness to accept” (0.33), “Ecological compensation standard” (0.23), and “Watershed ecological compensation” (0.22). This shows that “sustainable development” and “willingness to be compensated”, etc. are key bridges connecting other research branches in the field of ecological compensation.
Table 2 Top 18 keywords of ecological compensation
Keywords Frequency Centrality Category Year
Ecological compensation 577 0.49 Compensation theory 2001
Ecological compensation standards 186 0.23 2001
Ecological compensation mechanism 66 0.11 2009
Sustainable development 27 0.46 2008
Ecosystem services value 167 0.19 Research method 2001
Willingness to accept 76 0.33 2001
Willingness to pay 35 0.15 2010
Influence factor 24 0.08 2008
Opportunity cost 22 0.05 2013
Ecological footprint 22 0.03 2009
Propensity score matching 21 0.00 2001
Famers 38 0.08 Research object 2001
Watershed ecological compensation 30 0.22 2009
PPP project 23 0.00 2001
Nature reserves 19 0.10 2009
Watershed 19 0.03 2009
Grain to green project 19 0.12 2013
China 66 0.09 Study area 2001
In the category of “Compensation theory”, “Ecological compensation” is still the keyword with the greatest betweenness and frequency. “Sustainable development” has the lowest frequency but its betweenness is close to “Ecological compensation”, indicating that the higher the frequency of keywords does not mean the greater the betweenness. Although the “ecological compensation standard” has a higher degree of research enthusiasm than “Sustainable development”, the latter is more related to other research branches. In the category of “Research method”, researchers usually use “Ecosystem services value”, “Willingness to accept” and “Willingness to pay” to determine ecological compensation standards, and these three keywords have high betweenness. The betweenness of the keywords in the “Research object” is generally low, indicating that the “Research object” is connected with fewer research branches. In this category, “Farmers” and “Watershed” are the two of greatest concern to researchers. In the “Study area”, only “China” is a hot keyword. The ecological compensation hotspot study areas such as “forest” and “grassland” appear infrequently, which may be because the authors tend to display research areas such as “forest” and “grassland” in the title, instead of including them in the article’s keywords.

4.2 High-frequency keyword clustering analysis

The keyword cluster graph of ecological compensation research in China (Fig. 5) shows that a total of 82 clusters have been formed and there are nine keyword groups with the largest number of members. The modularity (Q) is 0.8851, indicating that the class cluster results are significant (Chen et al., 2015). The silhouette (S) represents the homogeneity among the members of a cluster. The S values of all clusters are between 0.9-1.0, i.e., greater than 0.7, indicating that the clustering results are convincing (Chen et al., 2015). The keyword cluster analysis results show that the current domestic research on ecological compensation is roughly concentrated in nine aspects, namely, “Ecological compensation”, “Willingness to accept”, “Peasant household”, “Sustainable development”, “Hubei Province”, “Grain to green project”, “China”, “Mechanism” and “Influence factors”.
Fig. 5 The cluster diagram of keywords

4.3 Ecological compensation research hotspots

Based on the co-occurrence analysis and cluster analysis of the above high-frequency keywords, we then analyzed the ecological compensation research hotspots in terms of the connotation of ecological compensation, the value goal of compensation, compensation subjects and objects, compensation standards, compensation methods, compensation supervision and evaluation of compensation effects. The detailed analysis is shown as follows.

4.3.1 Exploring the connotation of ecological compensation

After the concept of ecological compensation was introduced into China from abroad, there was a process of localization. Therefore, at the early stage of ecological compensation research, scholars in China interpreted the connotation of ecological compensation from various perspectives, including ecology, institutional economics, law and ethics. From the perspective of ecology, the purpose of ecological compensation is to maintain the dynamic balance of the ecosystem (Liu, 2010). From the perspective of institutional economics, Academician Li Wenhua proposed that ecological protection compensation is a kind of system of arrangements with the purpose of protecting ecological service function and promoting the harmony between humans and nature. According to the value of ecosystem services, ecological protection cost and development opportunity cost, ecological protection compensation utilizes the means of finance, taxation and market to regulate the economic interests of ecological protectors, beneficiaries and destroyers. This opinion has been widely recognized by those in academia. He emphasizes the internalization of the externalities of ecological protection through system design to avoid “free-riding” in the consumption of ecological products (Eco-compensation mechanisms and policies in China, 2007). From the perspective of jurisprudence, ecological compensation promotes the reciprocity of power and obligation, and should give ecological protection subjects the right to compensation so as to balance the rights and obligations of the ecological protection subjects and the ecological beneficiary subjects (Wang, 2014). From an ethical perspective, ecological compensation should include two types of ethical concerns: welfare concerns for ecological protection subjects and compensation concerns for ecological damage. The former is the direct defender of ecological productivity and the latter is the provider of ecological productivity (Wang and Li, 2015).
In terms of time scale, the connotation of ecological compensation has also undergone developmental deepening. In the early days, ecological compensation was a punitive measure for ecological destroyers, defined in terms of levying ecological compensation fees, and regarded ecological protection compensation as an economic stimulus to reduce ecological damage. With the development of society and the economy, ecological compensation has expanded from a fee solely for ecological environment destroyers to a subsidy for ecological service providers (or ecological environment protectors). Nowadays, ecological product value realization has given a new connotation to ecological compensation, emphasizing the internalization of the external economy of ecological products through the payment by beneficiaries in pluralistic and complementary ways, such as the market. Although the definition of the concept of ecological compensation differs slightly among researchers (Kong, 2017; Huang et al., 2018; Liu and Wen, 2018; Jin et al., 2019; Wu et al., 2019), one aspect is consistent: ecological compensation has an important role and value for balancing environmental protection and economic development.

4.3.2 Value objectives of ecological compensation

The primary value objective of ecological compensation is to protect or restore the ecological function or ecological value of the ecosystem, encourage environmental protection, and inhibit ecological damage, so that resources and the environment are moderately and sustainably developed, utilized and constructed, thus balancing and coordinating the economic development and ecological protection and making the development sustainable. Besides, there are few systematic studies on the value objectives of ecological compensation in China, and more often than not, different value orientations are included in various types of studies. For example, Wang and Li (2015) discussed the constructive relationship between government and market in the institutional mechanism of ecological compensation, which connotes seeking a balance between fairness and efficiency. Yang (2013) studied the horizontal transfer payment system of ecological compensation in China, in which the value objective is to regulate the interest relationship between areas with close ecological relationships and alleviate the financial shortage between important ecological function areas and local governments. Deng et al. (2015) studied the effect of ecological compensation policy on supporting green industries and green agriculture with the value connotation of ensuring consumer food security. Wu et al. (2018) investigated the effect of ecological compensation policy on three poor counties in Guizhou Province and concluded that ecological compensation has been given a new value in the new era and can successfully achieve the two major goals of ecological protection and poverty alleviation. However, this point is controversial in domestic academic circles, and two types of viewpoints have been formed: “single objective” and “dual objective”. The “single objective” viewpoint insists on ecological protection as the only objective of ecological compensation, emphasizing that the livelihood of the compensated group cannot be the policy objective, and believes that if livelihood improvement is included in the policy implementation objective, then the policy effect will be reduced (Chen and Wu, 2014). The “dual objective” viewpoint believes that ecological compensation policies should consider the compatibility of the dual objectives of ecological protection and poverty reduction (i.e., improvement of the livelihoods of the compensated groups). It can also be said that ecological compensation policies should be combined with poverty reduction (Wang and Wang, 2015). Based on the current practical application in China, the dual objective is more favored by policy makers.

4.3.3 Ecological compensation subjects

The first issue to be addressed in the study of ecological compensation is “who compensates”. According to the ecological compensation principle of “who benefits and who compensates”, there are two types of compensation subjects: government-led compensation and market-led compensation (Liu et al., 2019a). The “environmental public property theory” proposes that the main body of ecological compensation is the state and the government, but based on the consideration of the sustainability and effectiveness of the compensation, the role of ecological beneficiary regions, organizations and individuals with the ability to compensate cannot be ignored. For example, in nature reserves where tourism exists, the compensation subjects should include the beneficiaries of tourism and then enterprises or individuals who cause damage to the natural environment due to tourism development (Sun et al., 2013); and in watershed ecological protection, the beneficiary areas and beneficiary companies of the watershed water environment should also take the responsibility of compensation subjects (Wen and Liu, 2012). At the same time, the principle of “whoever damages, who compensates” requires that the organizations and individuals which cause damage to ecosystem services must bear the responsibility of ecological compensation.

4.3.4 Ecological compensation objects

A clear and accurate compensation target is one of the key factors for compensation to achieve the desired effect. The targets of ecological compensation are divided into two categories: first, those who sacrifice their own interests in the process of ecological construction to create social and ecological benefits; and second, those who are the direct victims of resource depletion or environmental quality degradation in the process of resource development activities and environmental pollution control (Wang et al., 2015). The targets of ecological compensation are judged according to specific ecosystem categories. For example, in nature reserves with grasslands as the main ecosystem, such as Xilingele in Inner Mongolia (Yang et al., 2006) and Gansu (Gao, 2019), herders are always chosen as the targets of grassland ecological compensation in relevant studies; while in ecological compensation studies with the main purpose of biodiversity conservation, the farmers (Zhang et al., 2020), fishermen (Xu and Jiang, 2020), community residents (Ma and Xia, 2020), and volunteers (Xu et al., 2020) are all possible groups to be compensated.

4.3.5 Ecological compensation standards

The scientific formulation of ecological compensation standards has a significant impact on the ecological protection effect and fundamentally determines the effectiveness and feasibility of the compensation system. The negotiation method and the accounting method are the two mainstream methods for determining ecological compensation standards (Liu et al., 2012). The contingent valuation method (CVM) was proposed by Davis in 1963. CVM is carried out by directly asking people about their willingness to pay (WTP) for a particular ecosystem and the ecological value is expressed in terms of the price that people are willing to pay. The negotiated approach involves negotiating and figuring out the ecological compensation criteria within a certain ecological compensation range.
The accounting method needs to evaluate the cost of ecological environmental management and ecological environmental loss first, and then determine the ecological compensation standard based on this method. To determine the ecological compensation standard based on the accounting method, two different scenarios are required: positive externality and negative externality. The value of ecological services and the opportunity cost of loss are two ways to determine ecological compensation standards using the accounting method (Zhang et al., 2009). The value of ecosystem services approach focuses on the actual value of the ecosystem services added by the conservation actions, which is used as the basis for setting compensation standards. Theoretically, the basic criterion for determining the ecological compensation standard should be located between the ecological function value and the restoration cost. Although there are various methods for assessing and accounting for the ecological service function value and opportunity cost loss, the current accounting system is not yet unified, which often leads to high compensation standards and makes it difficult to obtain the agreement of compensation subjects (Task force on Eco-compensation Mechanisms and Policies, 2007). In practice, the method of determining the ecological compensation standard through negotiation and agreement based on the data of accounting results is more widely accepted and effective (Gu et al., 2015).

4.3.6 The mode of ecological compensation

The mode of ecological compensation determines the efficiency of ecological compensation to a certain extent. The main body of ecological compensation is the core element that determines the essential characteristics of the ecological compensation methods. Different compensation modes can be adopted for different compensation bodies, and the existing compensation modes are mainly government compensation and market compensation. Government compensation includes the government purchasing services, hiring laborers to purchase labor, financial transfer payments, carrying out ecological protection projects, establishing compensation funds, and environmental taxation systems (Yang and Shi, 2019); market compensation includes foreign tourism companies for concessions, private enterprises for replenishment, and ecological signs. At present, China’s ecological compensation mode is facing the transition from “blood transfusion” to “blood creation”, and in addition to financial compensation, some researchers have also explored in-kind compensation (Song et al., 2019), policy compensation (Jin, 2011) and intellectual compensation (Liu and Wen, 2018) accordingly.

4.3.7 Regulation of ecological compensation

The ecological compensation mechanism is a complex and comprehensive operational system, which requires the interplay of multiple disciplines and departments, and moreover, the support and guarantee of other policies. Therefore, in the process of designing and improving the national ecological compensation mechanism, special attention should be paid to its intrinsic relationship with economic, management, legal and social policies, and the ecological compensation mechanism should be well integrated with them in order to build a complete ecological compensation guarantee system. However, a complete set of supervision and management mechanisms has not been formed in China in practice (Ye, 2014). One study concluded that to establish a long-term mechanism for ecological protection and compensation, it is necessary to establish a government performance assessment and evaluation mechanism based on the green GDP to achieve a green GDP growth approach and provide a strong policy guidance guarantee for ecological protection and sustainable development (Wei and Hou, 2015).

4.3.8 Evaluation of ecological compensation effects

Since the 1990s, research and practice on ecological compensation has been carried out for nearly three decades, and the evaluation of the effects of these ecological compensation efforts is becoming a new research hotspot. Specifically, researchers have focused on both the impacts of ecological compensation and the evaluation of the effects of ecological compensation in practice. The impact of ecological compensation is often associated with environmental improvement, as well as poverty reduction and income increase. Li Guoping (2017) evaluated the effect of the implementation of the ecological project of returning farmland to forests, which was vigorously implemented in China, and found that although the implementation of the project reduced a portion of the cultivated land area, the technical progress made the level of intensification of farming increase significantly and effectively improved the unit yield of the land. After the implementation of the program, the large amount of ecological compensation funds could effectively enhance the capital growth rate, which further promoted the economic development of remote and poor areas. In contrast, the comprehensive effect assessment of ecological compensation generally adopts the index system method, i.e., the effectiveness or performance of ecological compensation is evaluated by establishing an index system that includes indicators which reflect the impact of regional ecological, environmental, social, and economic aspects.

4.3.9 Ecological product value realization

Ecological product value realization is the core of the concept of “green water and green mountains are golden mountains”, which aims to transform available ecological products and tradable ecosystem services into economic values. It also aims to transform ecological advantages into economic advantages. The market-based ecological compensation mentioned in the Action Plan for Establishing Market-based Diversified Ecological Protection Compensation Mechanism, jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission and eight other ministries and commissions at the end of 2018, expands the meaning of ecological compensation. Since then, ecological product value realization has been almost equivalent to market-based ecological compensation, and also closer to the connotation of PES abroad. The current research on ecological product value realization mainly focuses on the connotation of ecological products, the current situation of production and supply of ecological products, the value realization path of ecological products, and the accounting of ecological product value.

5 Analysis of the evolutionary path of domestic research

Timezone analysis can clearly show the updates and interactions of the literature (Chen et al., 2015). A timezone analysis of ecological compensation research keywords is shown in Fig. 6, where the node size indicates the frequency of each keyword. The frequencies of the keywords shown in the figure are not less than three.
Fig. 6 The timezone analysis of keywords
The research on ecological compensation in China first appeared in 2001, the keywords were less frequent from 2001 to 2008, and the development of ecological compensation during this period was relatively slow. Between 2008 and 2010, the field of ecological compensation was in a relatively prosperous period, and the frequency of keywords increased significantly. Research branches such as “Sustainable development”, “Ecological compensation mechanism”, “Watershed ecological compensation” and “Compensation methods” were born in this period, and the number of published articles showed a growth spurt in 2009. From 2010 to 2015, the frequency of keywords decreased slightly compared with the previous period, but it still steadily advanced. On average, 1-2 new research branches appear every year, such as “Eco-economics”, “Livelihood capital”, “Grain to green project” and “Ecological protection”, etc. The frequency of keywords tended to decrease again during 2015-2021, until the emergence of “ecological product value realization” in 2019. This time-course indicates that the development of ecological compensation research has slowed down in this period, and no additional popular research branches have emerged.

6 Discussion

Ecological compensation is one of the central issues of sustainable development, and it has great practical guidance for promoting the construction of ecological civilization and achieving high-quality economic development in China. The analysis of the current situation, hot spots and evolutionary paths of ecological compensation research shows that domestic research on ecological compensation has achieved some clear results, but there are still many shortcomings, mainly in the following three aspects. First, ecological compensation accounting has not yet formed a scientific and unified standard system. Second, a market-based and long-term ecological compensation mechanism has not yet been established. Third, there is a lack of research on the distribution of ecological compensation funds. In particular, it is worth noting that the current ecological compensation needs to focus on the statistics and protection of background data, which is of specific importance for the subsequent research on ecological compensation assessment. Combining the evolutionary path of ecological compensation research, future research can be explored in the following three aspects.
(1) The ecological compensation standard accounting system needs to be further clarified. Formulating reasonable ecological compensation standards is the key to constructing ecological compensation mechanisms, and the method is the core content of ecological compensation standards. At the present stage, the ecological compensation standard measurement methods are not yet unified, and the boundaries of different methods in the application field are blurred. There are problems such as poor comparability between standards and the lack of a compensation mechanism in a specific implementation. There is an urgent need to explore the establishment of an accounting system that takes into account both equity and efficiency, and that is also highly operable, widely applied and recognized.
(2) Exploring market-oriented and long-term ecological compensation mechanisms. Exploring market-based ecological compensation mechanisms is not only a response to the Party’s 19th National Congress report of “establishing market-based and diversified ecological compensation mechanisms”, but also an important breakthrough direction for the sustainable development of ecological protection and the restoration of mountains, waters, forests, fields, lakes and grasses. It plays an important role in relieving the pressure of financial expenditure, improving the rational and effective use of resources, and broadening the investment path of the capital market (Jin et al., 2019). At present, there are relatively more studies on the marketization of ecological compensation around carbon sinks, and subsequent studies can explore the marketization mechanism of watershed ecological compensation, ecological markers, and the wetland banks.
(3) Pay more attention to the distribution of ecological compensation funds. The existing studies on ecological compensation standards mainly focus on the source of funds and the accounting of compensation standards, but in fact the distribution of funds also has an important impact on the compensation effect. For example, in the EU, ecological compensation has the concept of a green list, and ecological protectors can get the corresponding compensation amount if they complete the required contents according to the list. In contrast, the existing ecological compensation standards in China only have the concept of a total amount, and fewer studies have focused on the distribution of funds and the form of distribution. Therefore, future research can start from the fund distribution mechanism to improve the efficiency of compensation fund use.

7 Conclusions

This paper visualizes and analyzes the 1131 papers with ecological compensation as the theme included in the core journals in CNKI during 2001-2021 with the help of CiteSpace software. It also visually describes the current situation, research hotspots and evolutionary paths of research in the field of ecological compensation in China, and draws the following three conclusions.
(1) Through the analysis of the annual changes of the literature, authors and research institutions in this field, we clarified the current situation of research in the field of ecological compensation: the research enthusiasm of ecological compensation in academia has reached a high level since 2009, and the attention to ecological compensation has been increasing; the main core authors have published many articles on a preliminary scale, and the teamwork is small and not closely connected; the research institutions in the field are relatively concentrated, and there are large differences in capacity among different research institutions.
(2) Through a comprehensive analysis of keyword centrality and frequency, the research hotspots of ecological compensation are sorted out. Specifically, domestic scholars mostly focus on the basic concept and connotation of ecological compensation, value objectives, compensation subjects and objects. The research on ecological compensation standards is relatively more frequent, and the main methods involved are accounting and negotiation. In addition, the form of ecological compensation, the regulation, the evaluation of ecological compensation effects and the realization of ecological product value are also hot research contents. Future research can pay more attention to the establishment of an ecological compensation standard accounting system, continue to explore the market-oriented ecological compensation mechanisms and the ecological compensation fund allocation research.
(3) Through the Timezone analysis of keywords, the contents of ecological compensation research were found to have crossed and focused in different periods. On the whole, the evolutionary path of the research progresses from the exploration of the basic connotation and localization of ecological compensation to the study of ecological compensation standards and ecological compensation forms.
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