Showing posts with label biodiversity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label biodiversity. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We need some clear thinking on plastic bags - Part 1

I've been observing the debate about plastic bags for years but haven't posted anything on it.

I'm agnostic about whether something really needs to be done about plastic bags in particular.

Good environmental policy, it seems to me, looks at the best ways of fixing identified problems - rather than targeting certain products.

So what are the problems with plastic bags? As I understand it:
  • they're a large componenet of litter;
  • they're a reasonably important component of waste / landfill;
  • they get into waterways where they harm marine life;
  • they're made from a non-renewable resource.

To my mind, a more sensible starting point is to look at each of these problems separately.

Let's start with threats to marine life. What are the big threats? What's the most effective way to reduce their impact? Will getting rid of plastic bags make a big difference? These are the questions we should be examining.

Let's look at litter. What are the problems it causes? What are the main components? What are the most effective ways to reduce it?

Ditto for landfill and ditto for non-renewable resources.

I suspect that there's more effective measures to deal with these issues by looking at all contributors to a problem than singling out one product.

I also suspect that plastic bags are being targeted because they're a visible consumer product. The only concrete regulatory measure that the Howard government announced to reduce greenhouse emissions was phasing out incandescent light globes. Now it's a start and probably worth doing but will make an extremely modest contribution. I suspect they chose that because it's something everyone sees and has experience with - people will notice they're dong something. Similarly, Australian governments have had difficulty coming up with solutions to water shortages other than water restrictions on households. Again, a modest measure that looks to the average person like you're doing something, but really does little to fix the underlying problem.

Targeting plastic bags without examining why also creates confusion. Are biodegradable bags a good alternative? Queensland seems to think so. But my understanding is that they take months or longer to break down and in the meantime they create the same litter problems and danger to marine life that plastic bags do. And while they use renewable inputs (eg corn starch rather than petroleum), there's no guarantee that the overall environmental impact of those inputs is any lower: growing corn has its own problems in terms of resource use (think cleared land, water use, petroleum-based fertilisers, petroleum-fueled tractors) and waste (think fertiliser and pesticide runoff - what does that do to aquatic and marine life?). So deciding on alternatives really depends on what we're trying to achieve.

It's tempting to look at energy waste and think 'let's ban old-school light bulbs', to look at water problems and think 'let's water the garden less' and see litter and think 'let's ban the bag'. And yes, we all need to do our bit and those measures probably do some good.

But the challenge for good policy and what will produce real outcomes is to do the hard thinking about what are the real causes of the problem and what are the most effective measures we can come up with to deal with them - not just to go with whatever grabs our attention.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Killing endangered animals to save them?

I’ve belatedly discovered YouTube and my girlfriend was showing me some very amusing Borat clips on the weekend. There’s one interview with a particularly ghastly big game hunter in the US whose comments are so offensive you can only laugh, or cry. In one scene he’s showing off the trophy heads of animals he’s shot. He points to one and says proudly "This one’s the most expensive. I had to pay $12,000 to shoot it. But it was worth it. [beaming] It’s extinct now!"

Hunters do not attract a lot of sympathy. But I’ve come across two thought-provoking articles this week on whether allowing hunting and trade in endangered animals and their products could actually help save them from extinction.

The first article* looked at recent efforts in China to commercialise tiger ‘production’:

like forests, animals are renewable resources. If you think of tigers as products, it becomes clear that demand provides opportunity, rather than posing a threat. For instance, there are perhaps 1.5 billion head of cattle and buffalo and 2 billion goats and sheep in the world today. These are among the most exploited of animals, yet they are not in danger of dying out; there is incentive, in these instances, for humans to conserve.

So it can be for the tiger. In pragmatic terms, this is an extremely valuable animal. Given the growing popularity of traditional Chinese medicines, which make use of everything from tiger claws (to treat insomnia) to tiger fat (leprosy and rheumatism), and the prices this kind of harvesting can bring (as much as $20 for claws, and $20,000 for a skin), the tiger can in effect pay for its own survival. A single farmed specimen might fetch as much as $40,000; the retail value of all the tiger products might be three to five times that amount.

Yet for the last 30 or so years, the tiger has been priced at zero, while millions of dollars have been spent to protect it and prohibit trade that might in fact help save the species...

If we truly value the tiger, this crisis presents an opportunity to help it buy its way out of the extinction it now faces. The tiger breeds easily, even in captivity; zoos in India are constantly told by the Central Zoo Authority not to breed tigers because they are expensive to maintain. In China, which has about 4,000 tigers in captivity, breeding has been perfected. According to senior officials I met in China, given a free hand, the country could produce 100,000 tigers in the next 10 to 15 years…

tiger-breeding facilities will ensure a supply of wildlife at an affordable price, and so eliminate the incentive for poachers and, consequently, the danger for tigers in the wild. With selective breeding and the development of reintroduction techniques, it might be possible to return the tiger to some of its remaining natural habitats...

Unfortunately, the article is long on free-market rhetoric and short on examples, theory or other information on how allowing trade promotes recovery. The argument seems to be that if trade was legal, farming would become cheap and widespread and there would be no incentive to hunt wild tigers. I’m not at all sure that’s right. Breeding or ‘farming’ tigers is no doubt difficult and expensive. I imagine it’s cheaper and easier to go into the jungle and just shoot one than breed and raise these animals from cubs.

It may well be that allowing trade in tiger products could assist wild populations, but it would have to be combined with well-resourced enforcement to prevent hunting of wild tigers, effective tracking of products to ensure the traded products didn’t include illegally hunted tigers and well-resourced reintroduction programs to re-establish wild populations. Simply legalising trade would only increase the demand for wild tigers and reduce the risks of prosecution and therefore costs of hunting them.

And, of course, this all ignores the objections that many people will have to the initially repulsive idea of commercially farming majestic wild animals like tigers to grind their claws into insomnia treatments.

The second article** (pdf), which is quite detailed and much more useful, examined elephant populations in Africa.

It found that countries where ‘ownership’ of elephants (ie, the power to make decisions about what to do with them and the right to the benefits of those decisions) was vested in local communities had elephant populations that grew much more than countries where ownership was vested in the government (eg, through wildlife reserves), was not vested in anyone (open access) or where hunting was banned. Bans were ineffective because the resources required for their enforcement were too high for governments which meant that poaching was rife (in effect the position was similar to if the elephants were an open access resource).

Communities in these successful countries could decide which of the elephants in the vicinity of their village would be killed for their products, which kept for tourism benefits and which licensed for hunting. The communities made the decisions and the economic costs and benefits of their decisions accrued to them in the form of fees from tourist operators or hunting licences and food and/or income from selling elephant products. These communities could also effectively monitor their local elephants and had enough information and resources to stop poaching.

This is an interesting topic and one I’d like to know more about. It seems to me that, in theory, allowing trade in endangered animals / animal products could improve their prospects of recovery but only under fairly limited conditions:

  • The animals must be able to be either bred in captivity or their hunting regulated at a rate at which their wild populations will grow;

  • Illegal hunting must be enforced at a level such that poaching is more expensive than legal breeding / harvesting;
  • If we care about having the animals survive in the wild and not merely in zoos etc, captive bred individuals must be able to be returned to the wild and there must be some incentive or funding for that.
The main benefit of allowing trade seems to be that it allows for more effective enforcement against illegal hunting since poaching becomes a direct cost to the local community and it is often only the local community that has the local knowledge and incentive to actually enforce a hunting ban. Alternatively, it could be argued that the revenue from allowing trade could be directed into enforcement of illegal hunting.

Ultimately, it’s an empirical question (but also one of values) and it depends on the local conditions. I’ll try and track down some more empirical studies / articles. Does anyone know of any?

*Barun Mitra, The Value of wildlife: selling the tiger to save it (New York Times, 15 August 2006) via The Commons blog

** The Ivory Bandwagon:International Transmission of Interest-Group Politics
(Kaempfer and Lowenberg, 1999) via the Conservation Finance blog

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Save the whales

The International Whaling Commission wrapped up yesterday and Vincenze and Harry Clarke have good pieces on the issues behind the debate.

Monday, June 05, 2006

"Killers for conservation"

Earlier this year I wrote about the new trials to allow hunting of feral animals in NSW State Forests. Yesterday I watched a report on the Sunday program looking at the trials so far. The full transcript is on the show's website.

It was a fairly balanced piece, considering the reporter started (in a 'by the way' kind of manner) with the following disclosures:

These men are part of a campaign being waged in more than 100 state forests across NSW. The targets are carefully selected, no native fauna will die today, but ferals are fair game. These men are killers for conservation... Robbie Lynn manages this territory for the Game Council... Lynn and I go back thirty years. As teenagers we hunted pigs, rabbits, foxes and kangaroo, anything we could get our sights on. The places we roamed back then are now all but closed to shooting, such is the poor image of the hunter... There are now 1000 hunters who are venturing into the forest for the first time. Our groups are townies. Kym’s a vision editor for the Sunday program, Larry’s a landscape gardener and Dick owns his own business...

The program played up the political elements of hunters vs greens, the hunters-as-tourists angle and the safety issues. But it didn't delve very far into what I think are some of the crucial issues: Do hunters actually assist with the feral problem? What other activities are restricted when forests are closed for hunting?

My impression is that allowing hunters into forests will have extremely modest benefits. According to the program:

there is still another [feral pig] for every man woman and child in Australia [ie, about 20 million]. Here in the safe haven of state forests, there are 18 million wild cats and countless dogs, deer and foxes. Conservation hunting is the latest tactic in a battle to control these booming populations...

Robbie Lynn: "they’re going to have to do a few trips and start working hard before they get a good result, but we’ve got 31 forests and it’s only been open 8 weeks I think and there’s been over 50 pigs shot through the forest so far"...

After three days in Nundle our hunters have each spent more than $300 in the town on accommodation and food. It’s been modest return in hunting terms, a pig, a few foxes, some rabbits.

Clearly hunting is going to have very little impact on the feral problem. One of the farmers interviewed has a property adjoining a State Forest and summed it up:

Shooting is probably the least effective form of broad scale control that we have. But saying that, it’s better than nothing. Probably one step above no control. It will have an impact but it will not have a major impact on the overall population, but it will help.
Given the minor benefits it brings, I think the questions we need to consider are:

  • Is there any net conservation benefit at all? Hunting reduces numbers slightly, but land managers have commented that it interferes with other more strategic control measures (eg, it disperses animals). Some environmentalists suspect that if hunters can't find ferals they'll shoot native animals instead and there are reports of hunters bringing ferals into forests in order to hunt them. (It's irrelevant now but of course most of these animals were brought into the country by hunters in the first place - which puts hunting as the solution in an interesting light).
  • What other activities are displaced by allowing hunting in forests? I understand that the forest is closed during hunting (for obvious safety reasons) meaning that other recreational activities such as fishing, walking, etc are not available. What is the cost of that?
  • Given that the conservation benefit is limited at best and there are costs on other users of the forests, should we admit that this is a recreational activity, not a conservation activity, and charge hunting fees or auction hunting permits - the revenue from which could be used for feral control activities that are actually effective?
  • Given the limited benefits, the costs and the risks to safety, should we allow it at all?

Update - further info

Thursday, April 27, 2006

An Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act primer: Part 2

Yesterday, I looked at the limited scope of the Act and why it is inappropriate for dealing with cumulative impacts, in the context of the Australian Environment Minister's decision to refuse consent to a windfarm which could harm the endangered orange-bellied parrot. Today I look at how imposing conditions under the EPBC Act allows for win-win outcomes and some lessons for us from this situation.

Win-wins are commonplace under the Act

The media reports on this issue seem to have assumed or implied that the Minister had only two choices: to approve the windfarm or to reject it. Harry Clarke has pointed out that there was a straightforward win-win solution here: the parrots can be successfully bred and returned to the wild, so the windfarm could be allowed with the condition that it pay for a breeding and release program that returned a few parrots each year to the wild population.

Similarly, Chris Tzaros, who co-ordinates the Orange-bellied Parrot Project said he was surprised by the Government's decision, saying he thought Bald Hills could have been safely approved with a conservation management plan.

As I understand it, either solution was well within the Minister’s power, which makes you wonder whether the decision was more political than environmental. The Minister can approve project with all sorts of conditions.

The Age reported that the Minister's decision was only the fourth time an environment minister has invoked the EPBC Act to veto a proposed development, out of 2745 developments referred to the Government since it came into force six years ago. I spoke to one of the main EPBC Act decision-makers in the federal Department of Environment and Heritage last year about the success of the Act and this statistic. He made the point that many hundreds of projects had been modified substantially by conditions imposed by the Minister which made a huge difference to their environmental impacts. In his view, this was the real power and success of the Act.

He also commented that projects were never refused outright unless they were so inherently destructive that no conditions could be applied that would moderate their impact. In most of those cases, the projects were illegal under State law anyway and had been submitted only to make some kind of political point. This sounds very different to the situation with the Bald Hills windfarm project.

It's unclear why sensible conditions were not considered by the Minister in this case.

Some conclusions

Whether the Minister’s decision was politically-driven or not, it was certainly a bad one for the environment and in terms of social costs and benefits: it will likely save one bird every 109 years while sacrificing an otherwise viable development. And, in my opinion it represents appalling administration of the Act:

  • It uses the Act inappropriately to address a cumulative impacts problem by prohibiting a development which will have a truly trivial affect on the problem;
  • It does not consider imposing conditions which could actually have done something positive for the orange-bellied parrot while allowing an important renewable energy development to proceed.

There are reports that a legal challenge to the Minister’s decision is being considered. I would have thought such a challenge would have some legs. I think there’s questions about whether a windfarm that could kill on average one parrot every 109 years is a ‘significant impact’, as is required under the Act. I think there’s also an argument that the Minister’s consideration of the ‘cumulative impact’ of other sites, rather than just looking at the marginal impact of this development means that he has taken irrelevant factors into consideration, which would invalidate his decision. (I should point out that that’s not an argument that would be very popular with green groups, who have been pushing consideration of ‘cumulative impacts’ under the EPBC Act).

One last thing

Getting away from our discussion of the Act a little, but it would be remiss of me not to point out some pretty naughty out-of-context quoting by the Minister. In his media release he quotes this half of a paragraph from the report Wind farm collision risk for birds – Cumulative risks for threatened and migratory species (pdf) as being the reason for his decision and he even puts it all in bold:

Given that the Orange-bellied Parrot is predicted to have an extremely high probability of extinction in its current situation, almost any negative impact on the species could be sufficient to tip the balance against its continued existence. In this context it may be argued that any avoidable deleterious effect - even the very minor predicted impacts of turbine collisions - should be prevented.

He fails to quote the very next sentence though, which puts rather a different complexion on it. Let’s read the sentence now in its original context:

In this context it may be argued that any avoidable deleterious effect - even the very minor predicted impacts of turbine collisions - should be prevented. Our analyses suggest that such action will have extremely limited beneficial value to conservation of the parrot without addressing very much greater adverse effects that are currently operating against it.

Hmm. I guess saying "I have today made this decision which I’m advised will have extremely limited beneficial value" probably doesn’t sound quite as good in a press release, does it?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act primer: Part 1

(OK, not the catchiest title, I’ll admit).

The recent debate over the decision by the Australian Environment Minister to refuse consent to a wind farm because of its possible impacts on the endangered orange-bellied parrot has prompted me to say a few things about Australia’s primary piece of environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).

In case you missed the story, orange-bellied parrots are highly endangered, with less than 200 left in the wild. They migrate between Tasmania and Victoria each year. The proposed wind turbines, on the Victorian coast, are in the vicinity of the parrot’s migration zone. Though no birds have ever been sighted near the site there is, according to reports provided to the Environment Minister, a possibility that windfarm turbines in coastal Victoria might kill one bird every year. With the population so endangered, the Minister made the decision not to allow an additional windfarm to go ahead.

The best summary of the political context for the decision – which is important if you want to understand the decision – is this article in the Age. I recommend reading it.

I want to make some comments about the EPBC Act, because an understanding of the Act is also important if you want to understand what has happened here.


First, the scope of the Act is quite limited. Under the Australian Constitution, the States have general power over things such as the environment. The federal government has power over certain specified national issues, such as defence, trade and foreign affairs. Most of the federal government’s powers to affect the environment derive indirectly from the foreign affairs power: the federal government has entered into environmental treaties – such as the Convention on the Protection of Biological Diversity and the World Heritage Convention – and therefore must have the power to meet its obligations under those treaties. So its power over the environment is mostly limited to certain areas relating to its treaty obligations.

Under the EPBC Act, you need the Environment Minister’s approval for a project if it significantly affects a matter of "national environmental significance". These are:

  • World Heritage values of World Heritage properties;
  • wetlands of international importance;
  • Commonwealth listed threatened species and ecological communities;
  • listed migratory species;
  • Commonwealth marine areas;
  • nuclear actions; and
  • listed National and Commonwealth Heritage places.

It is worth pointing out that the federal government would normally have no power to prohibit a windfarm. It has that power in this instance because the windfarm may have a significant impact on a threatened species.

This is relevant because if the federal government wanted, politically, to gain some control over windfarm policy in Australia, it would have to do so in a roundabout way, such as prohibiting any windfarms that happen to get caught in its jurisdiction and then putting pressure on the States to negotiate with it on a national policy. That is what some people have suggested this decision is really about and it is interesting that the Environment Minister has recently called for a national code on wind energy.

Inappropriate for cumulative impacts

An interesting aspect of this decision is that the Environment Minister has refused the proposed 52-turbine windfarm at Bald Hills but has approved substantially larger projects nearby – including one that, according to the Age article (and presumably under the curious licensing scheme of the Act), he has expressly authorised to kill three of the parrots each year.

The Minister has claimed that it is precisely because he has approved these other projects that he can’t approve this one:

The orange-bellied parrot was at such dangerously low levels in terms of population that any additional wind farm in this particular area would have an impact on the survival of the species. The fact is we have had a massive increase in investment in wind farms: 400 turbines have been built in the past four years and there are 145 more in the pipeline. That has cumulatively a new impact on the environment which we have for the first time sought to assess.

Interestingly, and contrary to every media report that I’ve seen, the report on impacts did not say that the Bald Hills windfarm could kill up to one parrot per year, it said that, in total, all existing and proposed windfarms in Victoria and Tasmania could kill up to one parrot per year. The contribution of the Bald Hill windfarm itself to this number is trivial. (The Minister never claimed that the Bald Hills windfarm would kill one bird per year either – I know journalists don’t read reports but surely they could at least read the Minister’s one-page media release). Incidentally, if you look hard enough and do a simple calculation, the report cited by the Minister does contain the actual number of parrots estimated to be killed by the proposed Bald Hills windfarm: one every 109 years.*

This illustrates one of the major limitations of the Act: it is a project-by-project approval scheme. Project approval schemes are good at dealing with the particular local impacts of individual projects. What they are not good at is dealing with cumulative impacts: where each project has only a small additional impact but many projects will collectively have a major impact. And yet the EPBC Act is meant to deal not with local impacts but with matters of national significance. Green groups have been calling on the government to use the EPBC Act to prohibit or modify projects – such as coal-fired power stations – that have relatively large greenhouse gas emissions. In my opinion, the EPBC Act is ineffective for this: you need national policies that cover energy, transport, etc, not tinkering with projects one by one.

(Economic instruments are perfect for addressing cumulative impacts: this is one of their major advantages).

Tomorrow I'll talk about how imposing conditions under the EPBC Act allows for win-win outcomes and some lessons for us from this debacle. I'll also point out how the Minister selectively quoted from the Report he relied on to imply that the Report said almost the opposite of what it actually said.

* Page 30 of the orange-bellied parrot chapter of the report (PDF here) sets out the most likely survivorship rate of the population at Bald Hills: 0.9999392. I have used the calculations set out on pages 32 and 33 to arrive at a figure of 0.00912 parrot mortalities per year, which equals one every 109.6 years.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Everything is connected: wetlands and bird flu

I'm probably preaching to the converted here but here's another reminder that things are connected in ways we don't always understand and the environment isn't just something "out there" that we can ignore: environmental problems far away can have surprising impacts on us.

A United Nations (UN) report just released says restoring the world's wetlands may be critical to preventing outbreaks of avian flu, as their revival will keep migratory birds from mixing with domesticated fowl. It says the degradation of wetlands has forced wild birds, some carrying the deadly H5N1 strain, into alternative habitats. That increases the risk of the spread of the disease to poultry and, in turn, humans:

"The loss of wetlands around the globe is forcing many wild birds onto alternative sites like farm ponds and paddy fields, bringing them into direct contact with chickens, ducks, geese and other domesticated fowl," the report said.

The report, which has been presented at a two-day conference at the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program (UNEP), notes that contact between migratory birds and their domesticated cousins is a major cause of the spread of avian flu.

That includes the H5N1 strain, which is potentially deadly to humans. "We know there is a very tight link between the conditions of ecosystems and the likelihood of threats to human health," David Rapport, a Canadian professor of ecosystem health and the lead author of the study, said.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Birds and windfarms

In Australia last week, the conservative federal government invoked a rarely-used power to block a proposed windfarm, citing the need to protect the orange-bellied parrot.

Windfarms are an interesting political issue, often pitting local environmental concerns against global environmental concerns, as this quote from the story indicates:
Environment Minister Senator Ian Campbell has rejected a $220 million 52-turbine wind farm because of a perceived threat to the endangered orange-bellied parrot.

There are only 200 of the birds left in the wild and Senator Campbell has received a report that predicted one could be killed every year.

Mr La Fontaine [from the Wind Energy Association] says the Minister's view is too narrow. "The Minister is rightly concerned that the bird is to become extinct by 2050 but if we don't do anything about greenhouse challenge and how Australia addresses climate change the world is in danger of losing a quarter of all it species," he said.

Harry Clarke suggests that economics can provide a way out of the apparent impasse. That seems sensible to me, when the political alternative is that the potential death of one bird a year stops a $220 million renewable energy development.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Whacking Day in the Northern Territory?

This sounds a little familiar:

MORE than 500 people will take part in a giant toad-busting operation in Darwin, Palmerston and the rural area this week. The all-out community attack on cane toads will take part in at least 12 locations in a bid to stop the poisonous pest's march into Darwin.

Community and residential groups, LandCare groups, the Humpty Doo and Palmerston Golf Clubs, most Top End schools, MLAs and other people will be among those out collecting every toad they can find. Every school in the Top End has been sent toad forms for distribution to students to report the numbers of toads found in their local areas. The toad busts will begin tomorrow and hop right through up to and including next Sunday...

MLA's Matthew Bonson and Minister Chris Burns will lead toad-busts in the Rapid Creek area, while Palmerston MLA Terry Mills will head up a hunt at Marlow Lagoon. Other MLAs are expected to take part in their electorates.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Does the US Endangered Species Act work?

The US Center for Biological Diversity has just released an important study assessing the success of the US Endangered Species Act: the primary piece of legislation to protect biological diversity in the US.

As the report states, the purpose of the Act is "to prevent the extinction of America’s most imperiled plants and animals, increase their numbers, and eventually effect their full recovery and removal from the endangered list. Currently 1,312 species in the United States are entrusted to its protection".

The report goes on to point out that:

Opinions abound on whether and to what degree the Act has accomplished its goals. Most are politically driven, some are anecdotal, and a few attempt to wring long-term implications out of short-term data which are simply not adequate to answer the most basic questions about the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act. Are species population numbers increasing or decreasing in response to being placed on the endangered list? Is progress toward recovery consistent with or slower than the recovery period outlined in federal recovery plans? … while the Endangered Species Act has existed for 32 years, long-term population trend data have never been systematically gatherer and analyzed for a large, unbiased sample of species.

The study attempts to rectify that by presenting population trend data and narrative accounts for all endangered species that historically or currently occur in eight northeastern states.

The study's timing is good as the future of the Act is being debated and critics seem to take it as a given that it hasn't achieved its aims.

Their results suggest that the Act has been successful in achieving its objectives:
  • No species has become extinct after listing.
  • Most species have improved since listing, with 93% of species increasing or maintaining a stable population since listing.
  • Seven of the 11 species whose recovery plans aimed for recovery by 2005 had been delisted or at least ‘downlisted’ (ie, downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’).
One limitation of the study in my view is the lack of a control group with which to compare these species. It would be very interesting to see how the recovery of listed species compares with the recovery of species which, while threatened, have not been considered sufficiently endangered to warrant protection under the Act. This would go some way to assessing whether protection under the Act in itself aids recovery or whether, for example, general environmental improvement from other causes has been more important in the recovery of these species. Similarly, it would be interesting to see data on how these populations were progressing before they were listed (presumably they weren't preforming well if listing was required).

Of course, a control group would add its own difficulties in interpreting the results as measures stemming from recovery plans under the Act (eg, habitat protection) could have spillover benefits for other (non-listed) species. And data on species whose position is less precarious may be harder to come by as these species have not been the focus of conservation and research attention.

As far as I’m aware, no similar study has been done to assess the success of the similar threatened species legislation that exists in each of the Australian states and territories. There have been assessments but they’ve been more the type that the report describes as politically-driven, anecdotal or short term. Such a study would be of great value in Australia.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Biodiversity trading

Photo montage: UniServe Science

I've been meaning to write about biodiversity trading and banking schemes for some time now, because such a scheme is being proposed in New South Wales.

Anyway, I will be writing about this lots over the coming months because it's a concept that really pushes the boundary of what trading schemes can achieve - people are justifiably sceptical of the very idea of 'trading' biodiversity - which means that it's both exciting and controversial.

For now I'll just flag it and point you to the NSW Department of Environment and Conservation website which contains an interesting background paper on the concept and a discussion paper outlining the current proposal.

Enjoy your weekend!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Conservation vs logging: Battle of the dollars Part II

As I reported earlier, the Tasmanian Land Conservancy has purchased a large tract of land in Recherche Bay from its private owners, saving it from logging. What would environmental economics say about this development?

The ‘Coase theorem’ represents the traditional economic solution to environmental conflicts. Coase argued that if property rights are well-defined and enforced, bargaining between parties ensures that the optimal outcome is achieved, regardless of who holds the rights. According to one description of the theorem:

Many disputes over resources stem from the fact that no one owns them. Or -- nearly as bad -- everyone owns them, as in the case of public property. However, these disputes could be resolved if the unclaimed resources were divided up as private property. Now if someone wants to use your property, you could charge them a fee. Or if they abuse your property, you can sue them. Assigning property rights greatly enhances the ability to resolve disputes over the use and abuse of resources.
The Recherche Bay deal is perhaps an example of how this idea might work, sort of: environmentalists have gotten together money to buy an area of Tasmania’s historic Recherche Bay to protect it from logging by the notorious Gunns company. I’ve been following this story for a couple of months now and it’s been interesting. (Check out the reports in the weeks leading up to the deal on ABC news online.

I’m excited it’s succeeded but is it a triumph for free-market environmentalism? I’m not so sure. In my view, it’s succeeded despite the barriers to an optimal solution that a ‘free’ market throws in its way: a playing field that in this case is tilted against private conservation.

Here are some of those barriers.

Transaction costs

It’s a big deal for conservation groups to raise money from thousands of people to buy such an area. They need to advertise and lobby and beg and cajole to get it, they need to collect the money and hold it safely and issue thousands of receipts. They need to set up a trust to buy the land, work out how to manage it in perpetuity, work out who will negotiate with the landowner and so on.


If conservationists buy and save this area, who pays and who benefits? The generous benefactors pay, all sorts of other people benefit. I’ll benefit because I’d like to visit there one day and I’d like it there to be trees there when I do. I’ll benefit just from the warm inner glow I get knowing that a special place won’t be logged. Neighbouring residents benefit from. Historians and people of French and Australian heritage benefit from being able to visit or perhaps just watch a documentary about an unusual place where the French explored and almost made a decision to colonise Australia.

But will all these people pitch in their $5 or $10 or $100 to save the area? Not likely. Many of the beneficiaries may not even be aware of the benefits they receive. So it could well be that preserving this area is worth well in excess of the amount that conservation groups can raise.

Tax treatment

Tax treatment for conservation in Australia is complicated. It is improving, but there are many aspects of buying land for conservation that are not tax deductible. Donations to the trust that buys it will be, but payment for the land won’t (I think) nor the ongoing cost of managing the land for conservation.

So a group of conservationists face high transaction costs, free rider problems and difficult tax issues. On the other hand, where one logging company wants to buy the land to log it, it faces much lower transaction costs (only one party to organise and negotiate), very few free riders (it pays but also keeps the profits) and using land for primary production attracts very concessional tax treatment.

The property rights solution works sometimes but usually there’s too many embedded biases for it to produce an optimal outcome on its own.

In a later post I’ll talk about ways we can reduce some of the barriers to private conservation.

Conservation vs logging: battle of the dollars

Environmental economists’ ears prick up when they hear about conservationists buying out areas of land to protect them from logging or mining. In an economist’s ideal world, resources are used best when they go to those who will value them most, which means the highest bidder.

So it's interesting (and exciting as an environmentalist!) to hear about the purchase by Tasmanian Land Conservancy of the stunning Recherche Bay in Tasmania, which was due to be logged this year.

I've been following this story for a while and it's been full of political intrigue.

Stay tuned for some thoughts from an economic perspective.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Illegal fishing in the southern seas

My friend Doug has an interesting post today about the difficulties of policing illegal fishing of patagonian toothfish in the southern seas.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Australia's national parks

I haven't talked much about national parks here but some blogs that have good discussion on national parks issues (particularly from an economic perspective) are the Environmental Economics blog (this recent post on park user fees is an interesting one), Neo Commons (written by a retired US Park ranger) and the Commons Blog. If you're interested in national parks and other conservation areas, check them out.

If you're concerned about Australia's national parks and reserves, you should also consider making a submission to the current Australian Senate Inquiry into Australia's national parks, conservation reserves and marine protected areas.

The Inquiry will examine the funding and resources available to meet the objectives of Australia's national parks, other conservation reserves and marine protected areas, with particular reference to:

  • the values and objectives of Australia's national parks, other conservation reserves and marine protected areas;
  • whether governments are providing sufficient resources to meet those objectives and their management requirements;
  • any threats to the objectives and management of our national parks, other conservation reserves and marine protected areas;
  • the responsibilities of governments with regard to the creation and management of national parks, other conservation reserves and marine protected areas, with particular reference to long-term plans; and
  • the record of governments with regard to the creation and management of national parks, other conservation reserves and marine protected areas.
Submissions close on 1 March. There's already a few submissions up on the Inquiry website.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Hunting feral animals on public land

The New South Wales Government is planning to open four state forests for the hunting of feral animals, at first on a trial basis. According to the Daily Telegraph:
Recreational hunters using rifles, crossbows and dogs will be allowed to kill feral animals in state forests and on public lands in a controversial trial next month. Licensed huntsmen will be allowed to hunt feral cats, dogs, deer, goats, pigs and foxes after the State Government approved the two-day trial in four public locations from February 4. However, a declaration published in the NSW Government Gazette on Friday reveals the four state forests have already been designated as the first official, full-scale hunting grounds. The proposed order allows hunting for five years in these areas, with hundreds more to follow in March.

My understanding is that private operators already do some feral animal control on public land, but under close government supervision – quite different to opening the areas up for hunting.

This is an interesting one for environmental economics as it’s an example of harnessing private self-interest to further public goals.

It will be interesting to see the public response to this – in theory it could achieve important environmental objectives but it also raises animal welfare issues (will the animals be killed humanely?) and the idea of opening up public land to hunters is not one that would appeal to many environmentalists.

Green groups are suspicious and suggest that native animals are likely also to become targets. Some suggest that the plan will encourage hunters to deliberately stock public lands with young feral animals to hunt at a later stage. Other possible problems include danger to other users of these areas and environmental damage caused by hunters and their vehicles and hunting dogs. Apparently hunting dogs also escape and become destructive feral animals themselves.

What do you think? Is this plan a fox in wallaby’s clothing?