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Efficiency vs Sufficiency in Conservation

By Hugh Possingham

Comparing how much money is needed to ensure a conservation outcome with how to deliver the biggest outcome for a fixed investment are two sides of the same coin.

During a recent review of our research centres I was pulled up about our focus on efficiency. The challenge came from Greening Australia’s David Freudenberger, who exclaimed: “While all this research on efficiency is great, I wish you would do some more research on sufficiency” – or words to that effect. It took many months for me to fully understand exactly what he was saying.

One of the important contributions of much of our research over the past 10 years is to ask conservation researchers to include money in their thinking. It’s a notion that probably seems fairly pedestrian to most economists yet it’s a major stumbling block for a lot of conservation science. It is hard to be credible when you spend public funds and ignore the cost of actions.

For example, by the end of the last century there were innumerable processes and decision support tools to choose where to place national parks and marine reserves. But most of these frameworks concentrated on optimising biodiversity value – however you wanted to define it. The cost of the various options was often not factored in despite the fact that cost was more often than not the key factor in determining the best option.

The conservation planning tool I helped develop with Ian Ball and Matt Watts placed the importance of including cost front and centre. It is called Marxan. Once the conservation targets are set – for example, get me 20% of every kind of habitat or species for which we have a map – then Marxan achieves that as efficiently as possible with respect to cost.

In this case cost can be a combination of many things: cost to the taxpayer, forgone revenue from fisheries or forestry, or a combination of many other things that implies making any parcel of land or sea into a reserve and a loss to a member of the voting public.

Some of our other research asks the related question: how can I allocate limited funds to deliver the greatest biodiversity return on investment from actions? For example, how can I use a state’s habitat restoration budget to minimise the loss of species or achieve carbon and biodiversity benefits simultaneously?

In our quest to drive even more efficiency we have asked questions that many people would prefer us not to have asked. For example, should we be wasting money on monitoring that is unlikely to deliver substantially better outcomes? Should we be selling some national parks that are not cost-effective? When can we declare a species extinct and stop managing the place where it was?

All these stories revolve around being efficient with our conservation investments. And that’s good and proper when funds (usually public funds) are limited.

However none of this tells us what the budget should be! Are we afraid of telling government what is enough to stop the world’s sixth mass extinction event?

Being sufficient, as opposed to efficient, is posing the same type of analysis in a different framing. How much money do we need to ensure a certain conservation outcome with a specified level of confidence? This sort of analysis does not presuppose the budget, but determines the budget.

For example, earlier this year we showed what investment would be needed to secure biodiversity in the Kimberley, the last place in Australia with an intact fauna. Surely that is a good idea? Can we have $40 million per annum?

Of our few sufficiency studies I think my favourite was by Mick McCarthy of the University of Melbourne and Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions. With colleagues he determined what investment is sufficient to safeguard our birds. The analysis found that an annual budget of $10 million – that’s an average of $37,000 per species of conservation concern – would reduce the number of threatened species in 80 years time by approximately 15% while limiting the number of extinct species to one.

It should be noted that this level of spending is approximately three times what is being spent at the moment. This seems like a trivial amount to secure Australia’s avifauna, which is currently disappearing at about 100 times the “background rate”.

It seems remarkable that so little action is taken even when we can tell government what is almost enough.

Professor Hugh Possingham is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, which forms part of the Environmental Decisions Group.