Site icon Conservation news

Can we buy our way out of the sixth extinction?

  • A new study finds that conservation spending has lessened the environmental impacts of ongoing development around the world.
  • The researchers developed a model that any policymaker can use to see how much money is required to offset the environmental damage done by development, population growth and economic growth.
  • However, some researchers believe the relentless focus on economic expansion could hurt our efforts to achieve sustainability in the long term.

Money, it’s said, makes the world go round. The old adage appears to be true in conservation, too: A paper in Nature tracked $14.4 billion spent on conservation programs over a 12-year period around the world, and found that it was money well spent.

“All the money we have been spending on conservation has actually made a difference,” says Anthony Waldron, lead author of the paper and research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

To understand if spending was effectively making a difference in conservation, the authors compiled a dataset that took into account both species decline and conservation funding per capita in 109 countries. The researchers also looked at how development – population growth, industrial expansion, and agriculture – contributed to biodiversity loss.

The model found that while development and GDP growth affected biodiversity negatively, money spent on conservation greatly reduced those impacts.

In the 109 countries studied, all of them signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the researchers found a median average reduction of 29 percent of species loss per country as a result of the billions spent in the period from 1996 to 2008.

“If we hadn’t spent the money, we would have lost a third more biodiversity than we did,” Waldron tells

The researchers also found that nearly two-thirds of global biodiversity loss during that period was concentrated in just seven countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, India, Australia and the United States (the latter confined largely to Hawaii). Other countries, though, saw their biodiversity improve during the same period, including Mauritius, the Seychelles, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Poland and Ukraine.

The U.S. was one of the countries with the highest drops in biodiversity from 1996 to 2008, driven largely by species decline in Hawaii. Image by Mongabay.

Predicting future conservation spending needs

Not only does the researchers’ model demonstrate the impact of past conservation spending — it can also be used by decision-makers to predict how much money is needed to achieve future national and international biodiversity targets.

“The model can inform policymakers … about the ways in which changes in conservation resourcing can reduce the otherwise-expected losses,” Waldron and his colleagues say in their publication.

Crucially, in calculating the spending needed, the model can also take into account the impacts of ensuing development, such as predicted population growth or habitat loss.

Because development needs are continuously changing, so too will the figure needed to reach biodiversity goals, according to the paper.

Currently, Waldron is helping create a user-friendly version of the model used in the study, in collaboration with a team from Arizona State University. The interface, when completed, will allow decision-makers to simply type in numbers on conservation spending, in addition to predicted development needs, and get back expected biodiversity change.

The team ultimately plans to develop the interface to the point where it can demonstrate, for example, “if you need another 2% of farmland next year, this is the extra financial effort you are going to need in conservation,” Waldron says.

Such a framework promises an exciting way to potentially balance the often warring goals of economic development and ecological sustainability.

By having a model that can calculate the ecological “cost” of development, and by applying it at the level of nations, this approach could potentially help bring about the win-win scenarios aspired to by the Brundtland Commission, the Millennium Development Assessment, and others. Of course, it would mean the nations actually spending the requisite funds on conservation.

Yet some scholars maintain compensatory strategies such as these might serve to legitimize further development by failing to critique the underlying logic of continuous development and unending economic growth. Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian philosopher and environmentalist, writes, for example, that the modern preoccupation with limitless growth, manifested in the form of GDP, is “anti-life.”

Others say the focus on “net biodiversity” in some of these compensatory approaches takes important emphasis away from specific habitats and specific species, and that putting a final price on the cost of saving species might lead to unsettling consequences.

“We can lose the link with the real biodiversity behind this accounting approach,” says Coralie Calvet, a researcher on sustainability at the University of Montpellier.

Waldron was most surprised to find that Australia was one of the countries with the biggest drops in biodiversity in the study. Coastal forest and mangroves near Cairns, Australia. Image by Mongabay.

Money talks – but who’s listening?

Using compensatory and financial frameworks to offset development impacts, whether at the local or national levels, is becoming increasingly popular in schemes such as the U.N.’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), and wetland banking programs in the U.S. And, as demonstrated by the research undertaken by Waldron and his colleagues, injecting more money to balance out the impacts of development may be an effective tool in fighting species loss and meeting biodiversity targets.

Yet there remain other barriers to the successful fulfillment of environmental targets.

Waldron says that in the year since the publication of the paper, neither he nor his colleagues on the project have been contacted by policymakers, government representatives or nongovernmental groups, with the exception of one NGO, The Nature Conservancy.

“I have not received any approach from any policy unit since that paper was published,” he says, attributing this to a prevailing climate of exclusiveness about who’s allowed at the table.

“There’s clearly a defined group of people who make the decisions, and to some degree, there’s a defined group of academics,” he says.

If true, this is especially worrying given that, to date, we have continually missed biodiversity targets. The 2010 CBD signatories failed to achieve the targets of that convention, for example, and experts say it doesn’t look good for the 20 goals formulated at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the CBD in 2010, known collectively as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Waldron and his team of researchers hope that by providing the first definitive evidence that the dollar can go the distance in conservation, it will incentivize adequate spending.

“There’s increasing resistance to spending money, increasing cynicism about whether it’s doing any good,” Waldron tells

“The money’s working, but it wasn’t enough. Let’s put away the cynicism and go for sufficient funding.”

Banner image: Flying dragon lizard in Malaysia, by Rhett A. Butler.

Waldron, A., Miller, D.C., Redding, D., Mooers, A., Kuhn, T.S., Nibbelink, N., Roberts, J.T., Tobias, J.A., Gittleman, J.L., (2017). Reductions in global biodiversity loss predicted from conservation spending. Nature, 555: 364–367.

Tittensor, D. P. et al. (2014). A mid-term analysis of progress toward international biodiversity targets. Science, 346: 241–244.

Exit mobile version