The Global Cost of Protecting Biodiversity? Less Than You Think

© Kyle Obermann

Editor's note: Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is currently attending the 12th Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Over the past 18 months, I have been part of a group that has had the task of assessing, for the first time, the global cost of protecting biodiversity.

More specifically, we’ve looked at the predicted costs, benefits and opportunities to meet the Aichi Biodiversity Targets: 20 goals established at the 2010 meeting of the CBD that aim to collectively secure the future of Earth’s species and ecosystems by 2020.

Biodiversity forms the building blocks of all life on Earth, yet human impacts like climate change, deforestation and overexploitation of species have brought about what many are calling the Anthropocene, an era when we may be causing irreversible damage to the planet that makes all our lives possible.

As chair of a high-level panel organized by the CBD, I was honored to join 14 colleagues from various countries and disciplines in months of discussion and debate around the following questions:

  • What financial resources do nations need to meet the Aichi targets?
  • How can we improve the flow of funding through international cooperation?
  • How can nations substantially increase domestic funding for conservation?
  • What is the global financial gap between what we’re spending and what we should be?

In our first report in 2012, we estimated that it would take US$ 150–430 billion per year between 2013 and 2020 to meet all the Aichi targets. Since then, we’ve built on those findings by initiating a more bottom-up approach that takes greater account of regional evidence, placing more emphasis on the costs and benefits of meeting the targets, cost-effective means of reaching objectives and overlaps with other policy agendas.

Our findings have come at a critical time. This week at the CBD meeting in South Korea, nations are in the midst of defining a global strategy to mobilize financing for biodiversity.

The $150–430 billion figure may sound impossibly high, but it’s absolutely doable — and necessary. Here’s why.

1.     Compared to global spending on other issues, the overall cost is not that much.

Today the nations of the world invest around $45 billion in nature conservation. In 1998, Americans spent $8 billion a year on cosmetics, and Europeans spent $11 billion a year on ice cream. Brazil recently spent about $15 billion on the 2014 FIFA World Cup. If those amounts are possible for non-necessities, I don’t see why we can’t expand biodiversity financing — a crucial expense — to what it ought to be.

To put things in perspective, our $150–430 billion estimate is only between 0.002 and 0.008 percent of global GDP.

2.     The benefits of increasing biodiversity funding far outweigh the costs.

In a global economy recovering from a recession, it’s easy to see how governments, companies and communities could be hesitant to invest in protecting and restoring nature when, as they see it, there are more pressing concerns. But here’s the truth: Protecting nature will only get more expensive — and more urgent — from this moment forward.

Imagine your bedroom was on fire. Would you say “I don’t have the resources to put it out, so I’ll just hope for the best?” No. Instead, you’d try everything you could to extinguish the fire before it spread throughout the house and caused more damage.

Biodiversity is essential for sustainable development. Healthy ecosystems and species populations ensure the continued provision of ecosystem services — from freshwater supply to erosion prevention to the as-yet-undiscovered species that may make up tomorrow’s life-saving medicines — on which all communities depend, from rural villages to sprawling cities.

3.     This funding won’t just help species; protecting biodiversity will trigger a ripple effect of environmental and economic benefits.

Here’s one example. Protecting a mangrove forest from development doesn’t just help the birds and fish that live there.

The mangroves sequester and store carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating climate change. They filter pollution such as chemical fertilizer runoff from farms, preserving ocean health. They buffer nearby villages from storms. They shelter fish nurseries, ensuring that future generations can continue to make a living from fishing nearby. And they provide numerous other ecological services, many of which we are only beginning to understand.

From post-tsunami mangrove conservation and restoration in Sumatra to halting deforestation in Costa Rica, case studies conducted around the world have shown us how protecting nature provides a wide range of benefits — some unexpected — for society as a whole. Initial evidence from our high-level panel report indicates that every $1 invested in biodiversity and ecosystem conservation generates between $7–10 in other social, economic and environmental benefits.

These findings further prove that biodiversity protection should not be seen as something separate from other environmental and economic goals. Instead, the global community needs to identify opportunities where we can (pardon the expression) kill two birds with one stone, aligning priorities by funding cost-effective initiatives that protect biodiversity while simultaneously providing other benefits.

After 20 years of working on these issues, here’s the good news: I see people (and governments, and companies) starting to get it. Nations such as Ethiopia, Namibia and Kazakhstan have doubled their conservation budgets in the last 10 years. Others are designing and implementing innovative mechanisms that have the potential to dramatically increase conservation funding over the next few years.

But more action is needed, particularly in the public policy realm. If sectors like energy, mining, agriculture and infrastructure combined forces to stop supporting policies that incentivize unsustainable development, this could actually decrease the total cost of protecting nature by up to one-third of our panel’s estimate.

This week in Korea, as countries discuss how best to work together to meet the Aichi targets, I urge them to identify actions through which protecting biodiversity can directly contribute to developing international and national sustainable development plans — and benefit all of us.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is vice president and senior advisor for global policy in CI’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace.