Friday, October 27, 2017

Positive cost-benefit analysis for conservation spending

In a time when most news about human impacts on the Earth's biodiversity seems to be negative, a new paper in Nature provides a glint of good news about our ability to change the current trend of loss. Encouraging new conservation efforts and funding may be contingent on providing evidence that such efforts will actually be effective.

The new report from Waldron et al. (2017) provides evidence for a predictable relationship between conservation spending and reduction of biodiversity loss. They focused on signatory countries of the Earth Summit's Convention on Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development Goals, and developed a pressures-and-conservation-impact’ (PACI) model to predict how biodiversity loss changed in these countries between 1996-2008. Improvements were driven by conservation spending (relativized to reflect differences in buying power between nations) and were counteracted by GDP growth and agricultural expansion. 

Using this model, the authors could predict how the conservation investments made in these nations had affected their loss of biodiversity, as compared to the scenario in which no investment had been made. Amazingly, the median loss of biodiversity per nation was 29% lower than would otherwise have been expected. Over 1996-2008, seven countries even had net biodiversity improvements: Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Poland and Ukraine.

Fig 1. Map of biodiversity decline scores (BDS) for signatory nations.
"Colours show percentage of all global declines (total BDS) associated with each country. Pie charts show the predicted reduction in decline (in black) if spending had been I$5 million higher (for selected countries); pie size represents the square root of the BDS. Inset shows predicted versus observed BDS (log-transformed) for the continuous model".

They discuss a number of interactions among model terms that capture greater socio-economic complexity - for example, the impacts of GDP growth on biodiversity loss are lower when a country's base GDP is very low. Such large scale studies naturally face data limitations - here, they use mammal and bird Red List status changes to develop a quantitative measure of biodiversity loss. Other taxa presumably show similar trends, but we lack the data to incorporate them at this moment.

Hopefully by demonstrating this cost-benefit analysis for conservation actions, Waldron et al. (2017) encourage future 'investors' as to the payoff of spending on conservation. 

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