What would it cost to achieve conservation targets?

Two weeks ago Science magazine published online an article on the financial costs of achieving some important global conservation targets. The authors, most of whom are (like me) from partner organisations of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, looked at the costs of achieving two of the twenty ‘Aichi Targets‘ that were agreed in 2010 by the Convention on Biology Diversity. These were Target 12, to prevent the extinction of known threatened species and improve and sustain their conservation status, and Target 11, to expand and effectively manage protected areas so that they cover 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10% of coastal and marine areas. The paper comes up with a headline figure to achieve these targets of $78.1 billion US per year. This is certainly a very large number, but as the paper rightly points out, it is rather small when compared to what we spend each year on soft drinks.

Calculations like this are very useful, and they can have a powerful impact on policy. The release of the paper co-incided with the CBD meeting in Hyderabad, India, which finished last week. This meeting was dominated by discussions over how to fund efforts to achieve the Aichi Targets. The meeting eventually agreed an extra $10 billion US per year to support conservation in developing countries, and while the negotiations for this deal have been ongoing for months, the Science paper can’t have hurt those making the case for more funding at the conference.

I’m sure the authors of the paper would be the first to admit that estimating the global costs of conservation is an inexact science. There are some knowns, a lot of known-unknowns, and probably an awful lot of unknown-unknowns. The general strategy adopted by studies of this sort is to start with something relatively small with known costs, and then scale up through a series of careful steps. The Science paper is no exception, and the authors start from the known costs of saving bird species and managing and expanding Important Bird Areas. They then scale up to incorporate other taxa (for Target 12) and more areas (for Target 11). Each stage of the calculation inevitably introduces more uncertainty, meaning that the final numbers are by no means precise, but they do a  nice job of indicating a ball-park figure for achieving some very important conservation goals.

Reading this work, two thoughts come to my mind that suggest the total cost of conservation calculated in the Science paper is a considerable underestimate. First, the cost of expanding protected areas to cover all of the world’s Important Bird Areas is based on a spatial model of the rental cost of agricultural land. I’m not sure of the technical details of this model, but it sounds to me like it provides a very conservative estimate of the opportunity cost of conservation. If a few hectares are taken out of food production (or possible future production) then the current rental cost of that land for farming seems a reasonable estimate of opportunity cost. But if a further 7% of the entire terrestrial planet were to be protected for conservation, the cost of renting each remaining unit of farmland would surely increase sharply, making the opportunity cost of conservation much larger. This is not to mention the other, non-agricultural values that people place on areas that might be lost if they were protected for conservation. For example, if that place is their home, or if it contains mineral or oil deposits. These opportunity cost issues might increase the overall dollar cost of achieving the targets considerably.

Second, the ‘true’ cost of achieving conservation is not just about money. If a mega-wealthy philanthropist were to write a cheque tomorrow for $78.1 billion US it would not be possible to go out and deliver all of the activities that were costed to come up with this number. The money could indeed be used to boost the activities within existing protected areas, presuming that there are sufficient skilled staff available for hire. However, expanding the protected area estate is a different story. This depends not just on money, but on political will. In some places land can be bought and sold, if the current owner wants to sell (which is not always the case). In others, creating protected areas requires a decision by the state or a community. Money might help to make the case, but ultimately people must be persuaded that conservation is in their best interest, whether or not the money is available. In some cases, a sudden abundance of money for conservation can even have perverse outcomes, as it can attract the attention of powerful and self-interested actors who might make things worse. This problem has been discussed in the context of forest carbon and community-based natural resource management.

Achieving the political will that would create the conditions under which the big cheque for conservation could be turned into results will require massive investment in the first four Aichi Targets, which together seek to “address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society”. Conservation does clearly need an enormous increase in financial support, a case the Science paper makes very well. It also needs a lot more than money – it needs public deliberation and a widespread consensus that biodiversity is worth more alive than dead. This is a long-term project to say the least.

C.S.

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