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Could market forces be harnessed to rescue habitat worldwide? Some scientists think so.


Could market forces be harnessed to rescue habitat worldwide? Some scientists think so.

"Allowing one country to pay another to protect ocean refuges on its behalf made sense once we realized just how inefficient uniform conservation mandates are."
June 13, 2024

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Economic growth is a major force in the destruction of the natural world. Rainforests are leveled to make way for soybean plantations. The atmosphere is overheated by pollution from the fossil fuel industry. Floating masses of plastic trash, the effluent of a consumer-driven society, clog parts of the ocean. There’s a reason “degrowth” has become a mantra of some environmentalists.

But what if some of the market forces that drive the world economy could be harnessed to help save some of the most ecologically important places? A group of environmental scientists think such an approach could improve the chances nations will live up to recent promises to set aside 30% of the planet’s oceans for marine life, by cutting the cost of such protections by as much as 98%.

“There are cheaper ways to attain marine conservation goals,” says Juan Carlos Villaseñor-Derbez, an environmental scientist poised to become a professor at the University of Miami. “The magnitude of the cost-savings was indeed surprising.”

The idea of using market dynamics for environmental benefits is nothing new. In the U.S., acid rain stemming from emissions from coal-fired power plants was reduced with a system that enabled polluters to buy pollution allowances from each other. A similar “cap and trade” mechanism is often promoted as a way to tackle greenhouse gases.

At the same time, the world is littered with global environmental treaties that fell short, in part because countries have proven unwilling to bear the costs. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was supposed to bring greenhouse gas emissions from many of the world’s richest countries to 5% below their 1990 levels by 2012. That hasn’t happened. Countries largely failed to meet biodiversity protection targets agreed to in 2010 . Nations are dangerously close to betraying the promises made in 2015 at the Paris climate summit. While the ink is barely dry on a new biodiversity agreement that calls for protection of 30% of the ocean, there are concerns the 2022 deal may suffer similar setbacks.

Villaseñor-Derbez and two environmental economists at the University of California Santa Barbara wondered if that treaty, known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, could be tweaked to make its ocean protection goals more affordable and palatable.

Right now, each of the more than 190 countries that have signed the agreement committed to protect 30% of the portion of the ocean under their control. But the cost of meeting that promise isn’t equal. Some nations might need to close lucrative fisheries, for instance, while others might have little economic activity in their waters.

What if a country with relatively “expensive” ocean territory could instead pay another country to protect an equal amount of less economically valuable ocean? Such an arrangement could ease the economic pain for the country with the higher regulatory cost, while providing a new source of income for the country whose ocean terrain had been less economically important.


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To see how this might work on a global scale, Villaseñor-Derbez and his collaborators amassed detailed models of the whereabouts of nearly 24,000 marine species, and the revenue generated by different fisheries around the world. That enabled them to generate a picture both of the ecological importance of different parcels of the ocean and of the economic value of their fisheries.

The researchers then generated a variety of scenarios aimed at minimizing the economic cost of protecting 30% of ocean habitat inside the exclusive economic zones (EEZ’s) of the world’s nations—an area bordering a country’s coastline that is under its control.

The most lax arrangement split the world into four trading “bubbles” allowing countries to make deals within their own quarter of the globe, in which they could pay another country to protect habitat on their behalf.  

More strict approaches limited such exchanges to places with common ecosystems. In one, the researchers divided waters into 12 “realms” based on common biological and geographic traits. In the most restrictive, trades would only be allowed between the same kind of ocean habitat broken down into 219 different “ecoregions.”

The researchers found that even this most restricted arrangement would cut the overall cost of meeting the 30% target by more than a third (37%). A more flexible system, such as permitting trades within biogeographic regions or hemispheres, delivered a whopping 97.5% in cost reductions, the researchers reported today in Science.

While the astronomical amount of savings was a surprise, “it made sense once we realized just how inefficient uniform conservation mandates are,” said Villaseñor-Derbez.

Such eye-popping savings seem like they would make such an arrangement a slam dunk. A trading system could both make marine conservation more attractive and free up money to address other social or environmental problems, noted Villaseñor-Derbez.

But as with so many environmental policies, the devil is in the details. For starters, the international agreement would need to be amended to permit such a trading system. Any framework would also need to guard against abuses.

Countries might try to sell conservation rights for a stretch of ocean that’s of little ecological value. A country might have lax enforcement of restrictions on fishing or other activities. As a result, a rich nation could be off-the-hook from limiting activities in its own waters, while a the poorer country it paid to conserve a place might not do it. The rising profit potential from ocean conservation could also lead governments to push out local people who rely on the sea for subsistence.

Villaseñor-Derbez acknowledges these could be problems. He also points out that many of them also could occur under the existing system. “Like with any international agreement, appropriate checks and balances would have to be implemented,” he said. “Our main goal was to estimate how large the gains could be. Now that we know they are potentially large, it is time to turn our attention to … important features of the policy.”

Villaseñor-Derbez, et. al. “A market for 30×30 in the ocean.” Science. June 13, 2024.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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