How much will it cost to save the world’s biodiversity?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

How much will it cost to save the world’s biodiversity?

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At this year's party conferences, none of the three political leaders spoke of the need to protect the millions of other species with which we share this planet.  I was disappointed but not surprised.

Fortunately, next week, representatives from most of the world’s governments will gather in Hyderabad, India, for the eleventh meeting of the Council of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the most significant agreement we have aimed at saving nature globally.  Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, will be flying the flag for the UK.

A key aim for these discussions must be agreeing what it is we actually have to do to achieve the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.  We must not repeat the same mistake made with the 2010 Biodiversity targets where governments, happy to accept the plaudits for signing up to commitments, were then unwilling to actually finance the needed actions.  The lack of financial resources available to save biodiversity is the major conservation issue of our times.

The “million dollar” question is how much will it cost the global community to save nature? Thanks to the tremendous efforts and expertise of RSPB’s scientists, in collaboration with colleagues from BirdLife International, Cambridge University and worldwide, we have a robust estimate of how much it will cost to meet two of the key targets; to protect the world’s most important wildlife sites, and to prevent the extinction of the world’s most threatened species.   This estimate appears in an article in the latest issue of the world’s leading journal, Science.  You can read it here.

So, how much?   Well, the good news is that it is comparatively cheap. The authors estimate that to reduce significantly the extinction risk of all the world’s threatened bird species, of which there are over 1,100 (one in ten of all bird species), will cost global society a mere £500 million a year over the next decade. This might sound a tad steep compared to most of our pay packets, but in global terms it really is trivial – a single cosmetics company has an annual advertising budget higher than this!

To save all the world’s globally threatened species (including mammals, amphibians, reptiles etc. as well as birds) will cost around £3 billion. Less than half of what we spend on ice cream each year in Europe. Saving species from extinction really is remarkably cheap…some incredibly so. For example, the diminutive Raso lark (pictured), a close relative of our own skylark, is now confined to a single tiny island in the Cape Verde group off west Africa. Restoring a much larger island nearby and establishing a second population there could cost as little as a few tens of thousands of pounds a year, and would greatly improve the species’ chances of survival. We currently have a team of RSPB staff working there to achieve just this, and you can read more about it here.

Protecting and managing the world’s most important wildlife sites, such as Gola forest in Sierra Leone, where the RSPB is working to protect one of the world’s most important tropical forests, is inevitably going to be more expensive, but even so, the approximately £50 billion needed annually to protect such sites, covering over 17% of the planet’s land surface, represents just one fifth of what the world spends on soft drinks each year. 

What this research tells me is that protecting the planet’s most threatened species and important sites is absolutely affordable.  All recent assessments of biodiversity at all scales tell us we are losing nature at accelerating rates.  Yet, for an investment of just 0.1% of global GDP we can actually pay off our a huge chunk of ecological debt. When it comes to the economic and wellbeing benefits such investment would deliver I defy any economist on the planet to prove that the case for such investment is anything other than compelling.

 No species is too expensive to save. These seminal results justify a substantial increase in funding commitments at next week’s meetings. Even in this time of austerity, the world’s governments cannot blame any repeat failure to meet targets to protect our planet’s biodiversity on the grounds of expense or ignorance of costs.

This research didn’t happen because anyone offered us money to do it. It happened because colleagues here, at birdlife, in Cambridge and globally were motivated to combine their expertise and work incredibly hard because they realise that, at times, saving nature requires this kind of grinding effort. Their commitment got the funds and it took plentiful supplies of midnight oil to get the results out in time for the Hyderabad COP.  The results of this enormous undertaking will be presented at the meetings taking place in Hyderabad. A world class effort from our scientists and, I hope, a game changer.

  • Peregrine,that is brilliant if that £3.17 each week was donated by all who have signed the badger petition towards a vaccine for badgers against BTB think there would each year if my maths are correct over £22 million.

  • Very good.

    If we had spent the 100 trillion that was spent on the Iraq War on renewable energy systems then we would be in a very different position today; re debts re energy security etc etc etc

  • Brilliant Blog Martin! If everyone donated £3.17 (the average price of a pint of beer) to conservation each week and drank one less pint just think how quickly those funds could be met, and how much better national health would be...

  • Excellent blog Martin let's all hope for a good result.