Paper describes cost of biodiversity, though not its value


Any excuse to post a photo of a pika is a good one.

This is interesting: a new paper in Science purports to chart the cost of protecting what’s left of the world’s biodiversity, and the figure seems be eliciting gasps:

We estimate the cost of reducing the extinction risk of all globally threatened bird species (by ≥1 IUCN Red List category) to be US$0.875-1.23 billion annually over the next decade, of which 12% is currently funded. Incorporating threatened non-avian species increases this total to US$3.41-$4.76 billion annually. We estimate that protecting and effectively managing all terrestrial sites of global avian conservation significance (11,731 Important Bird Areas) would cost US$65.1 billion annually. Adding sites for other taxa increases this to US$76.1 billion annually. Meeting these targets will require conservation funding to increase by at least an order of magnitude.

I haven’t taken a look at the methodology, what with being on the wrong side of the JSTOR Curtain, but a reviewer quoted by Daniel Cressey in Nature’s article on the paper has said the work seems “smart,” though he does point out that its scope is limited.

Henrique Pereira, who works on international conservation issues at the University of Lisbon in Portugal, says that although there are uncertainties inherent in extrapolating from birds to all species, the work is an “extremely smart paper”. “For the first time we have an estimate of how much these targets will cost,” he says. “For any negotiations that occur over the next few years [on CBD targets], these numbers can be used as a reference.” But Pereira also points out that the figure is for just two of the 20 targets agreed by the CBD. “If you look at the range of targets for 2020, the total bill will be higher,” he says.

If the paper’s emphasis is on protecting habitat, as the abstract and the Nature coverage seems to indicate, then there are a few issues unaccounted for. The North American pika, for instance, is in trouble — and not because its habitat isn’t legally protected. Of course in the absence of a copy of the full paper I really can’t do anything but armwave on its possible limitations. [Edit: I now have a copy. thanks!]

But writer Daniel Cressey’s angle on the $76 billion figure in his news piece in Nature is interesting. His lede:

Protecting all the world’s threatened species will cost around US$4 billion a year…. If that number is not staggering enough, the scientists behind the work also report that effectively conserving the significant areas these species live in could rack up a bill of more than $76 billion a year.

Cressey does include a quote from study leader Stuart Butchart mentioning what we get back from protecting that biodiversity, including things like pollination services (estimated at $2 billion) and carbon sequestration ($6 billion), Butchart also mentions that $76 billion isn’t a huge amount given what we as a species spend on other things.

An example: the world plowed $1.74 trillion into military expenditures in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. $76 billion is a scoche more than 4% of that.

Or, for a less obvious example, $76 billion spent worldwide to conserve biodiversity is a significantly lower amount than tourists spent in California in 2011, according to one estimate. A person with access to surveys could tease out how much of that gross income would disappear if California lost its biodiversity; at least some of those tourists came to see the redwoods and the Joshua trees.


  1. Hank Fox says

    Seen them pikas with my own eyes! Cuties in the rocks alongside the trail in the Sierras, up at 10,000 feet or so, usually with a mouthful of grass.

    Yeah, the “cost” of protecting the ecosystem, that’s a totally forward-thinking way of looking at it. Not.

    Sort of sets up this question in your mind: Is it really WORTH IT to keep the world alive around us?

    Maybe it could be done cheaper if we outsource it.

  2. markdowd says

    Even before I got to the second half of your piece, my first thought was:

    “A few billion? That’s it?”

    Given the trillions we regularly use to kill each other, this is chump change.

  3. Randomfactor says

    My god, that larger number is almost THREE TIMES the annual world budget for chewing gum.

    Not counting the cost of scraping it off sidewalks and movie theater seats, of course.

  4. says

    Whenever I see an -illion dollar figure, I do my best to keep a sense of scale. Millions is pocket change, and a few billion is pretty darn cheap compared to our big expenditures.

  5. chigau (this space for rent) says

    How do They™ come up with these numbers?
    I can think of only one source when someone makes absolute statements involving money and the environment.
    (it’s characterized by a lack of sunshine)

  6. raven says

    I don’t find those billions of USD numbers scary at all.

    for a 9.1% share of the $95.5 billion US beer market.

    Read more: http: //articles.

    The US spends 96 billion dollars a year on beer alone. If you add in wine and spirits, we spend something like $200 billion on just alcoholic beverages.

    US spends $32 billion a year on candy.

    US spends $20 billion a year on potato and corn chips.

    US spends $84 billion a year on cigarettes

    It should be worth something to keep our life support system going. On a spaceship like the Earth, a life support system isn’t optional, it’s a necessity.

  7. jimmauch says

    At this very moment I am a tourist on my way out into into the ocean to spy me some cetaceans. I don’t imagine that I would go all the way from Wisconsin to Boston so that I could be shown where whales used to live before we deemed to be too expensive to bother with.

  8. unclefrogy says

    cost vs value? The big question I have when I hear of studies like this with regard to the “natural world”, pollution, dams, forest logging, sanitary land fill, makes no difference I always wonder what were the things that were left out, what were the things that were minimized and which were the things that had the rosy scenarios. Besides the question of just who determines the monetary value of the things that they did include and how was it determined?

    I’m sorry but that is really stupid.
    uncle frogy

  9. says

    Not staggering at all! I keep hearing how protecting the environment would bankrupt us, but here we could take care of one of the biggest problems we face, mass extinctions, for less than we spend on trivial stuff?

    That’s only a little more than ten bucks a person world wide.

  10. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says

    Something that is also missing is the economic benefits of habitat protection and the number of jobs created by the same. And not just those jobs (such as Park Rangers :) ) directly protecting the resource, but also those working in restaurants, hotels, guide services, and other tourism services. One of the big reasons people go to Yellowstone, other than the thermal features, is the wildlife. No wildlife and West Yellowstone becomes a ghost town?

  11. comfychair says

    I can only take credit for the slight alteration from Derek Bok’s original, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

    And on further thought, maybe I should have added a footnote: “Extinction is a bad thing, mmkay?” Seeing as how damn near half the country thinks ‘climate change mitigation’ means removing all carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which will suffocate all the plants, and that 1984 is an instruction manual and not a warning… ;[

  12. davem says

    $76 billion is a scoche more than 4% of that.

    I had to Google ‘Scoche’, and I still can’t find it… ????

  13. rq says

    Recently watched The Lorax with the younguns, where they really DO put a price on air… And while the basic message (nature is good and should be protected) is a good one, it also leaves one with the false impression that no matter how much of it is destroyed, it’s possible to come back from the brink, by merely showing people the extent of the damage…
    And in relation to this piece, I wonder – is it really that easy to sway people? (Actually, once it’s too late and everyone’s begging to be saved, a lot of minds can be saved, probably.) And also – pretending for a moment that it IS possible, this ‘getting it back’… What would the cost of that be? What was the old saying – ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’? Personally, if my government wants to dish out millions and billions just to make sure that some bits and pieces of this country remain natural, biodiverse and PROTECTED, I’m willing to pay for that.

    And I’m not sure how the number 4 billion per year (even that even more frightening ‘up to 76 billion’) counts as staggering, in this day and age… Looks like They’re looking for a cheap way out, by scaring people with a whole lot of (these days) insignificant zeroes. *sigh*

  14. mudpuddles says

    I’ve been worried about the reporting of that piece, plus the utter lack of context about (as you highlight, Chris) the benefits we obtain in return.

    In 2008 I was involved in a study which put the value of biodiversity in Ireland at over EUR€ 2.6 billion per year. That was based on a very small subset of the ecosystem goods and services the economy and people of Ireland derive from the biodiversity on their island. The actual figure is more likely upwards of EUR€ 5 billion (many forest, marine, coastal and freshwater ecosystem benefits were not assessed). Add in the value of biodiversity from other countries (i.e. the benefits Ireland gets from carbon sequestration, climate regulation, pollination of import crops etc from major ecosystems in the tropics and elsewhere) then the figure – as far as it is possible to account for some of those benefits – exceeds 15 billion. Many additional priceless benefits exist that cannot be priced – such as the value of regulating pests and diseases that have not yet emerged. In addition, many of the benefits do not arise as finance gained but as losses avoided (e.g. through natural disaster or malnutrition), and therefore act as a priceless insurance policy.

    For a small country, with biodiversity that is considerably less than even its closest neighbour the mainland UK (due to glaciation & island effects etc) that’s a pretty substantial set of values. Costanza et al’s famous paper from 1998 puts the global figure into the trillions, as does the recent TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) report.

    Such a shame the authors of this latest paper, or those writing the press releases, chose not to explain and highlight the wider context.

  15. mikecline says

    I want to know if they just looked at the direct costs of fixing things or if their numbers include first reducing the costs by stopping certain high cost behaviors.

  16. mcallahan says

    I’m enjoying your stuff at Pharyngula Chris. Welcome.
    I have always called a pika a cony. The name cony is as cute as they look. I have seen them in the high Sierra on talus slopes. The one in the photo looks a little tattered like a museum specimen. It is unsettling to know that the cony can be endangered in spite of living in one of the most rarefied places on this continent. They always seemed to me to be very reclusive. It must be hard for a biologist to count them. I have waited a really long time for a cony to reappear after the first sighting. They go under a ten ton boulder and wait me out. I’m nor doubting the claims that the cony is becoming rare. I loved those little guys at first sight 45 years ago.
    I love the desert too. I used to catch giant chuckawallas in the Mojave, excavate old bottles at Ballerat and watch golden eagles circle the mountains at Panamint City. So much beauty and so little time to enjoy it all.

  17. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says


    Interesting stuff – thanks.


    More interesting stuff – thanks. For others’ convenience, the TEEB Report is here.

    There’s another broader issue, maybe hinted at in the title: there’s significant evidence (sorry, I don’t have references handy, but will look for some) that monetary motivations tend to “crowd out” others, such as in this case, concern for biodiversity as intrinsically valuable, as a crucial part of the beauty, complexity and variety of the world. That’s not to say we don’t need calculations of costs and monetary benefits, but arguing the necessity to conserve biodiversity in these terms itself has potential costs.

  18. says

    I want studies that start out with what changes will cost. If you bulldoze all the mangrove swamps so you can put in resort hotels, and that destroys the shrimp and fish spawn shelters so your fishing industry tanks, and then a hurricane comes along and washes away your unprotected coast–how much did those developments really cost?

  19. says

    What’s the cost of not protecting species?

    Because not protecting species lowers the amount if biodiversity, the amount of reserve land, the absorbency for the environment of pollutions and the efficacy of it lasting through climatic events…

    I hate one-sided calculations. I’m sure we spend a few billion dollars helping children, too, or watering lawns or flowerbeds.