Offsetting your greenhouse gas emissions can impact more than just your carbon footprint

By Tim Treuer

This Giving Tuesday, I decided to offset my 2020 carbon footprint. And help protect endangered biodiversity. And help eliminate poverty. And improve air, water, and soil quality. And support gender equality. And empower historically marginalized communities. And maybe even decrease the risk of killer diseases like COVID-19 and malaria.

But I only made one donation. And its price tag was the equivalent of about a dollar a day.

How? I’m donating to an organization that will use the funds to restore tropical rainforests. I may be biased as a restoration ecologist, but in my mind there are few ways to offset your emissions that carry as many co-benefits to nature and society as regrowing rainforests. More on that below, but first I want to address the elephant in the room when it comes to carbon offsetting: most don’t offset anything.

Seedling nursery

Per a 2016 European Commission report, 85% of carbon offsets fail to offset carbon. A big problem is scam organizations that simply do less than they promise. But even well-intentioned, reputable groups can fall short. The two main problems are failures to account for ‘additionality’ and ‘leakage’. Additionality means that the carbon that is pulled out of the atmosphere wouldn’t have been pulled out anyway. Some organizations offer to do things like establish tree plantations in areas that would otherwise be recovering forest–forest that would, in many cases, store more carbon than the tree plantation!

Leakage becomes an issue when a group’s actions to draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere lead to increased emissions elsewhere. This is a pernicious problem with many efforts, even ones that have huge positive local benefits. Protecting stands of old-growth forest or using farms to produce biofuels can be really great in theory, but if you don’t address the demand side of the equation, economics dictates that you’ll end up with compensatory logging or farming elsewhere. (Side note: one pet peeve of mine is that biofuel studies sometimes come up with rosy predictions because they simply assume we will produce less food and eat fewer calories in the future.)

If you pick carefully enough, however, tropical forest restoration projects often evade these two pitfalls. Many (if not most) involve jumpstarting the recovery of land that would not heal on its own because of challenges like invasive vegetation that chokes out seedlings, absent seed sources because of widespread forest clearing, or heavily degraded soils from overgrazing or nutrient depletion. So you can go ahead and tick that box for additionality. And so long as the restoration activities take place in protected settings like national parks or community forest, you shouldn’t see compensatory carbon emissions elsewhere. Ergo, no more leakage.

But carbon offsetting is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tropical forest restoration. Pound for pound there are more species in tropical forests than any other ecosystem on Earth. In places like Madagascar or lowland Borneo, many of those species are in serious danger of disappearing forever because of past habitat loss. We are talking millions of species hanging on by a thread. Most don’t even have scientific names yet. Their only lifeline is the resurrection of lost habitat. The biodiversity benefits of forest restoration alone can and do justify restoration projects across the tropics.

Caterpillar at reforestation site

Forest restoration through planting seedlings and controlling weeds is a super labor-intensive activity. 22-23 year old me can definitely attest to that fact after spending two seasons co-managing a reforestation project in Gunung Palung National Park on the Indonesian side of Borneo. But the required blood, sweat, and tears is a feature, not a bug. Labor means employment opportunities, and in impoverished tropical communities, that means poverty alleviation. One of the top requests from the villages where I worked was for more opportunities to be paid to reforest. And it’s equitable work too. It was common at our site to see planting teams led by women from an indigenous ethnic group– women who would be less likely to get jobs with the commercial oil palm plantations, the main local employers.

Reforestation site

There’s another reason those communities love reforestation work. They know healthy forests mean less smoke and haze from invasive grass fires, less flooding, and more consistent and cleaner water in the streams running out of the forest. The water perks span the wet and dry seasons. Forests decrease rainy season flooding via increased and root-mediated groundwater infiltration into the water table, which then feeds streams during drier periods.

At this point I’m starting to feel like Billy Mays: “But wait! There’s more!” I think it’s safe to say that most people would relish the opportunity to kick an anthropomorphized version of this global pandemic right in the nu… uhh, somewhere really painful. Tropical forest restoration is actually the next best thing. One of the big insights of the scientists in the emerging discipline of eco-epidemiology is that unhealthy ecosystems tend to yield greater risk of wildlife diseases crossing into human populations. There’s a whole slew of mechanisms for this–from stressed animals like bats shedding more virus to many malaria-spreading mosquitoes preferring open habitat to closed canopy forest– but the punchline is that when scientists looked at how to prevent the next pandemic, halving deforestation made the list of cost-effective preventative measures. My current research looks at how reforestation could protect against malaria in Madagascar, and past work I’ve been a part of showed that deforestation upstream of impoverished rural communities leads to more cases of diarrhea in kids and infants.

There are many organizations that need your support for their tropical forest restoration work, and many online tools for calculating your annual carbon footprint. I’m choosing to donate to the organization I worked with in Borneo. Not only do I know from firsthand experience that they are doing truly additional and leakage-free offsetting, but they also are super transparent about how they calculate and track their offsets.

There are tons of great organizations out there, though. You could even pick one in a country you plan on visiting once the pandemic is over– maybe they’d even show you the forest you helped replant. Just make sure you are asking three questions: will the trees you help plant cause forest clearing elsewhere? Would the replanted forest recover on its own anyway? And finally, how are they calculating their emissions reductions?

If you’re happy with your answers, congratulations! You’ve found a way to give that really does keep on giving.

Tim completed his PhD at Princeton in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (*18), where he studied large-scale tropical forest restoration. He was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow and currently a Gund Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Vermont, where he studies whether and how reforestation can be used as a tool for combatting malaria in Madagascar. You can find him on Twitter (@treuer) and at www.timothytreuer.com.  

Pulp Non-fiction

Written by Timothy Treuer

A story (but careful, there’s a twist):

In 1998, the Costa Rican Sala Cuarta (their highest judicial body) issued a ruling against a company that had dumped 12,000 tonnes of waste orange peels in one of the country’s flagship protected areas, Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). The ruling came at the urging of some members of the Costa Rican environmental community, and studies had found elevated levels of d-limonene–a suspected carcinogen–in local waterways as a result of the company’s actions, raising tensions with neighboring Nicaragua over the possible pollution of their downstream eponymous lake. The court ruling demanded the immediate removal of the orange peels from where they lay–a site that some had labeled ‘an open air dump.’

A keen observer at the time would have noted one immediate hiccup with the court’s order: those 12,000 tonnes of orange waste? They didn’t exist anymore.

Six months of unfathomable ecstasy on the part of four species of flies had converted the mega pile o’ peels into several inches of black, loamy soil, smothering the invasive African grass that had previously dominated the heavily degraded corner of the national park. Oh, and d-limonene? Turns out it’s more of a cancer-fighter than a cancer-causer (See Asamoto et al. 2002 Mammary carcinomas induced in human c-Ha-ras proto-oncogene transgenic rats are estrogen-independent, but responsive to d-limonene treatment. Japanese Journal of Cancer Research), and can now be purchased on Amazon for $0.16/gram (note I do NOT endorse herbal supplements as a general rule–talk to your doctor if you or your transgenic rat suffer from mammary carcinomas).

See, the orange peel dumping was actually part of a grand plan hatched by rockstar ecologist turned conservationist, Dan Janzen (best known for his hit singles like ‘Herbivores and the Number of Tree Species in Tropical Forests’ and ‘Why Mountain Passes Are Higher in the Tropics’, but I prefer his deep tracks ‘How to be a fig’ and ‘Mice, big mammals, and seeds: it matters who defecates what where’). He and his partner Winnie Hallwachs had noted the following upon observing the development of a huge new orange juice processing facility on ACG’s northern border by a company called Del Oro: (1) most people don’t like peels in their orange juice, (2) megatonnes of orange peels probably weren’t the easiest thing to deal with on the cheap, and (3) of the 170,000+ species of creature in ACG’s forests, at least one probably would nosh some citrus rind. Upon discovering that Del Oro planned to construct a multi-million dollar plant to turn their waste into low-grade cattle feed, Dan and Winnie engineered the following plan:

  1. Dump orange peels on former cattle ranches recently incorporated into ACG.
  2. Fly orgy.
  3. Profit.

Amazingly this plan nearly worked perfectly! Del Oro was all over the idea of getting a little weird with ACG. After a promising test deposition of 100 truckloads of orange peels in 1996, Del Oro and ACG signed a contract wherein the park would provide waste disposal (and interestingly, formalized water provisioning and pest management ecosystem services that Del Oro enjoyed by virtue of being neighbors with a fat block of mountainous rain-, cloud- and dry forest) in exchange for donating a huge amount of still-forested land that they owned on the ACG border. Janzen threw in some ecological consultation and help in getting eco-friendly certifications as a sweetener. A seemingly beautiful win-win deal.

But of course, we can’t have nice things.

You may have already pieced together what happens next: after executing the first year of the contract wherein Del Oro trucked in ~12,000 metric tonnes of peels and pulp into a heavily degraded corner of ACG that was seemingly caught in a state of arrested succession, a rival orange juice company caught wind of the party, and did as one does when they get spurned by a guest list omission: they sued.

And won.

What seemed to get lost in the debates that raged at the time though, was what effect all these orange peels would have on the forest itself. Dan and Winnie had the intuition that killing off the fire-prone grass and adding nutrients to a plot of land that had been continuously trampled by bovid beasties for a couple hundred years would be a positive change for an aspiring forest, but that wasn’t a certainty.

In 1998, 1000 truckloads of orange peels were deposited in a degraded section of Costa Rica’s Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). (Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs)

After the fallout from the lawsuit and the court ruling, it’s understandable that Dan, Winnie, and ACG’s staff didn’t want to draw too much attention to the site (a couple of ACG officials nearly were thrown in jail for failing to adhere to the court order). They visited a few times early on to photograph the progress, and sent a botanist in the very early years to write down what species of plants were occurring in the fertilized area and the surrounding pasture, but other than that the project was more or less consigned to the quirky annals of ACG history (alongside such fascinating historical tidbits as a starring role in the Iran-Contra Affair–read the book Green Phoenix by Bill Allen for the full fascinating history of the park).

The reason I’m relating this story is that some collaborators and I started revisiting this site a few years ago, and we were so blown away by what we saw that we had to tell the world. The area where the orange peels had been? It had become just about the lushest forest I’d ever seen. Literally, vines on vines on vines. And the surrounding pasture? Still pretty much looked the same as in old photos.

In the summer of 2014, I set up Princeton senior thesis student Jon Choi ‘15 at the site, and let me just say, he scienced the crap out of it. We set up some vegetation transects and developed a soil sampling regime, and then he went full Tasmanian Devil in a labcoat. We’re talking camera traps, audio recorders, pitfall traps, and theoretical modelling of ecological state transitions–the whole nine meters. It truly impresses me that he managed to say so much about what ultimately boils down to a very simple observation: orange peels jump-started forest recovery–where there would otherwise be a stunted savanna, there’s now forest so thick you literally have to hack your way through with a machete.

Images from early 2014 of the unfertilized, control site (left) and the site that had been fertilized with orange peels in the 1990s (right). (Photos courtesy of Timothy Treuer)

After a few years of trying to distill this work into something palatable to reviewers, journal editors, and our team of co-authors, we are proud to finally drop our LP: ‘Low-cost agricultural waste accelerates tropical forest regeneration,’ available exclusively from Restoration Ecology.

In all seriousness, I really do believe there’s an incredibly exciting idea at the core of this project: it wasn’t just a win-win initiative. It was win-win-WIN. Carbon was sucked out of the atmosphere, biodiversity was increased, and soil quality improved. All FOR A PROFIT! Despite this, we couldn’t find a single other example of ag waste being used to speed forest recovery. We hope that changes. The world really shouldn’t contain both nutrient-starved degraded lands and nutrient-rich waste streams.

Tim is a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology studying large-scale tropical forest restoration. More broadly, he is interested in the effective communication of and policy solutions to complex environmental challenges in an era of global change. He’s on Twitter (@treuer) and tumblr (treuer.tumblr.com).

Conservation Crossroads in Ecuador: Tiputini Biodiversity Station and the Yasuní oil fields

Written by Justine Atkins

On an early morning boat, mist still rises off the water and the Amazonian air is thick with the characteristic dampness of tropical rainforests. We’re heading out in search of a nearby clay-lick where many parrot species congregate. In the partial slumber of any graduate student awake before 6 am, we sleepily scan the riverbank and tree line for any signs of life. It’s from this reluctantly awake state that our guide Froylan suddenly jolts us to the present and directs our gaze to a small clearing alongside the river. There, out in the open, a female jaguar sits in the grass near the river’s edge. By what seems like sheer luck, we have seen one of the most elusive Amazonian species, something our second guide José says he himself has only achieved five times in seven years.

This majestic female jaguar watches us closely from the safety of the grassy river bank, perhaps waiting for our boats to move on so she could continue on her route across the Tiputini river. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Of course, luck is only part of the story. The river we’re traveling down is the Tiputini River, which forms one edge of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park — an area of some 3,800 square miles of pristine rainforest, historically left untouched by human development, that is practically overflowing with biodiversity. There are more species of plants, reptiles, insects, mammals and birds here than almost anywhere else in the Amazon and, by extension, the world.

Nestled in the dense array of kapok, ficus, Cecropias and Socratea or “walking palm” trees, is Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). Established in 1993 and chosen specifically for its isolated location, the research station at Tiputini is a collaborative venture between Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University. TBS supports ecological research at all levels, hosting everyone from visiting undergraduate students to PhD candidates to senior academics.

Almost everything about TBS and its surroundings reinforces the feeling that this is truly one of the most pristine and isolated centers of biodiversity in the world. As visitors to TBS for our Tropical Ecology field course, the first-year graduate students in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology travelled by multiple planes, boats, buses and trucks over five hours from the nearest city (Coca) just to reach the field station itself. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Yet, as unfortunately seems inevitable whenever anyone talks about these last remaining ‘untouched’ areas, the pristine nature of TBS and Yasuní National Park comes with its own caveat. On our journey to the station, we are, probably naïvely, surprised to have to go through a security checkpoint run by the national oil company Petroamazonas. The mere presence of Petroamazonas indicates that the as yet undisturbed area surrounding TBS is up against a rapidly ticking clock. And with only a cursory glance over the basic facts of this situation, the sound of that ticking clock becomes deafening.

*     *     *

There are hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of barrels of Amazon crude oil lying beneath Yasuní National Park. For any nation, but particularly Ecuador — a relatively poor, developing country — the temptation to drill is immense. (Ecuador’s per capita GDP in 2013 was $6003, compared to the US GDP in the same year of $53,042.) For example, the government stood to make over $7 billion net profit (at 2007 prices) from the extraction and sale of 850 million barrels of oil from these reserves.

Yasuní had the potential to be a model for innovative environmental policy. It possesses unparalleled species’ richness, is located in a nation dependent on the extraction of non-renewable resources, and is home to the indigenous Waorani and two uncontacted groups, Tagaeri and Taromenane. In many ways, the variety of stakeholders and conflicts of interests and aims among them represents one of the most daunting conservation and sustainable development challenges the world faces today. How do we balance the needs of biodiversity maintenance, socioeconomic parity and protection of indigenous people when the goals of each seem to fundamentally misalign with one another?

The attempt to resolve this conflict was compellingly detailed in a National Geographic feature in January 2013. In 2007, President Correa proposed the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative (named after the three oil fields in the area it encompasses: Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini). The Yasuní-ITT sought $3.6 billion in compensation (to be contributed by international donors, both countries and corporations) in exchange for a complete ban on oil extraction and biodiversity protection for the ‘ITT block’ in the northeast corner of Yasuní.

With this initiative officially instated in 2010, Ecuador became one of the first nations to attempt sustainable development and action against climate change based on a model of truly worldwide cooperation. For this model to be successful, the government relied on other countries to recognize that an international desire to preserve the ecological value of Yasuní also meant an international responsibility to contribute to the opportunity cost of this preservation. There was a ground swell of support for this proposal within Ecuador and initially this was also met with enthusiasm abroad. However, by mid-2012, the Ecuadorian government had received only $200 million in pledges, contributions stalled and the Yasuní-ITT initiative was officially abandoned in August 2013.

Similar sustainability issues were at the forefront of the recent UN Climate Change Conference 2015 in Paris, also known as COP 21 (21st session of the Conference of Parties). Much of the prolonged negotiation and disagreement among the attending countries was based on the divergence of priorities among developed and developing nations. The former group was, by-and-large, pushing for uncompromising targets on emissions reduction and renewable energy use from the current highest emissions contributors, chief among which are developing nations like China and Brazil.

But developing nations felt strongly that they should not be excluded from the full benefits of industrialization, which developed nations have profited from in the past. One potential solution to this conflict, and one which led to part of the Paris Agreement, is for developed nations to support developing nations in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable, lower emission energy sources through financial compensation. Sound familiar? This was exactly the logic behind the Yasuní-ITT, so the failure of this initiative represents more than just a threat to Yasuní — it symbolically threatens action against climate change worldwide.

A closer look at the failure of the Yasuní-ITT reveals that there were in fact more complex considerations at play than simply a lack of pledged contributions. In an essay evaluating the decision to abandon the initiative, Ariana Keyman, an associate at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, assessed the particular political, economic and social factors that contributed to the Yasuní-ITT’s demise. Due to his dogged pursuit of a ‘New Latin American Left’, Ecuador’s President Correa was determined to increase spending on pro-poor socioeconomic development while also preserving the status of Ecuador’s environment and biodiversity. Unfortunately, as is often the case, something had to give and it was ultimately the environment that was compromised. This was only exacerbated by the historic dependency of this country on the oil industry and the ‘closed-door’ manner in which the Yasuní-ITT was both adopted and abandoned by the government. In this light, perhaps the case for international collaboration and economic cooperation on tackling the challenges of biodiversity conservation and climate change is not so hopeless, but it is still likely to be a bumpy road ahead.

*     *     *

Tiputini Biodiversity Station itself still seemed largely untouched during our trip in January 2016. Part of this was surely due to our unfamiliarity with the oil extraction process, but it’s clear that the continued tireless efforts of environmental groups are at least holding off the worst of the potential destruction for now. The founding director of TBS, Kelly Swing, wrote in a guest blog post in National Geographic in 2012 that the incursion of oil companies in this area has also in some ways helped scientists learn more about the incredible ecological communities in this region, thanks to increased funding and accessibility.

More than the literal isolation, the overwhelming presence of a brilliant array of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that seem to be almost dripping from the trees was a constant reminder of how far from urbanization we were and the sheer uniqueness of the location of TBS. Every morning, we awoke to the reverberating booms of howler monkeys and the screeching calls of caracara and macaws high above us. Walking to and from the dining area, we routinely spotted roosting bats, several species of anole lizards and learned to recognize the squeaking communications and rustling branches around us the local woolly monkey troop on their morning or evening commute. All of these wonderfully unique species (clockwise from top left: white-necked jacobin, motmot, woolly monkey, and tree frog) are threatened in some capacity by the oil industry. Photos credit: Alex Becker.

It appears, however, that the benefits are unlikely to outweigh the costs, particularly when the long-term consequences of the oil industry in Yasuní will be unknown for years to come. Swing was quick to point out that alread there are documented negative impacts — insects are being drawn to huge gas flares and eviscerated in large numbers, eliminating important food resources for frogs, birds and bats, and industrial noise pollution disrupting the communication channels of calling birds and primates, potentially limiting their ability to find mates, locate food, and avoid predators.

In establishing the research station along the Tiputini River, Swing said that their goal was “to be able to study and teach about nature itself, not human impacts on nature.” From our experience there, this goal was definitely realized in the most fantastic way possible, but how many other visitors who come after us that will be able to say the same thing we cannot say with any certainty. As global citizens, this is a concern that we should all be dedicated to addressing.

Justine is a first-year PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at Princeton University. She is interested in the interaction between animal movement behavior and environmental heterogeneity, particularly in relation to individual and collective decision-making processes, as well as conservation applications.

Rethinking Our Approach to Protected Areas for Conservation

Written by Justine Atkins

Over the last fifty years, there has been progressively more widespread recognition that species’ biodiversity is rapidly declining. This is a huge problem, and not only ethically: biodiversity also has crucial economic returns such as ecotourism and promoting ecosystem resilience to climate change and invasive species. It is now well-established that the overwhelming responsibility for this decline rests firmly on our shoulders. Therefore, humans must change the way in which we interact with the environment.

One of the key ways in which we have responded to this ecological crisis is through the establishment of protected areas. These areas of land or ocean are sectioned off and restricted from human use, (theoretically) protecting the ecosystems within them from negative anthropogenic impacts such as deforestation and hunting. At least four international treaties have been established with the aim of protecting a representative example of all ecosystems and species types that exist in the world today [1]. Most recently, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set targets of protecting 17% of terrestrial area and 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020, to be specifically achieved through the establishment and expansion of strategically designed and managed protected area (PA) networks.

Perhaps surprisingly, global PA coverage is actually moving steadily towards these targets. Unfortunately, equally surprising is that biodiversity continues to decline despite this increased investment in conservation. The disconnect between the potential and realized impact of these reserves has led scientists to begin questioning the efficacy of PAs as a strategy for conserving biodiversity. This shift in perspective has, in turn, forced researchers to look more closely at how the effectiveness of PAs is assessed. Past evaluations have proven inconclusive, demonstrating both the huge benefits and significant shortcomings of protection. For example, many populations of large mammals within Africa’s reserves are still showing declines, while, on the other hand, raptor species in Botswana are much more abundant within PAs than outside these areas.

Why are there such contrasting outcomes? The answer involves several complex and interacting issues. Firstly, there is a wide variety of ways in which PAs can intervene in the environment — each with its own set of costs and benefits. Marine PAs, for example, can save declining fisheries stocks but are likely to negatively affect species living outside these areas as fisherman move their activities to neighboring areas. Secondly, establishing a PA has complicated socioeconomic impacts; these can range from being helpful, such as providing jobs, to harmful, such as forcing indigenous people off their land. Thirdly, because we lack a unified framework, past assessments of the consequences of any particular protection method have had to rely on “before-and-after” style analysis. This method is problematic because it fails to account for what would have happened to, for example, the biodiversity in a PA if that area had not been put under protection. Making direct comparisons to a baseline of conditions is crucial in science and is also referred to as the use of “control groups” (Box 1).

Box 1. Impact evaluation
Impact evaluation (IE) is a method of assessing the potential or realized consequences of a conservation policy (e.g. protected areas). IE involves the use of scientifically rigorous paired comparisons to assess the effects of an intervention. Unlike performance measurement, which monitors changes in ecological and socioeconomic indicators (such as number of species within a given area) over time, evaluating the impact of a protected area also accounts for changes that might have occurred in that area even in the absence of protection. In this way, we can get a picture of the transformations that have occurred within a protected area that are i) the direct result of the establishment of protection and ii) simply due to natural fluctuations in ecosystem characteristics over time and space.

Several closely related experimental techniques are key to the IE method:

- Control groups are groups of test subjects or sites which very closely resemble the subjects or sites receiving an experimental treatment (for example, a clinical trial of a new prescription drug) but are not themselves subject to the treatment. These groups ‘control’ for factors beside the treatment that could influence the outcome.

- Matched pair experimental design directly compares each ‘treated’ site or subject with a matching ‘control’ site or subject.

- Counterfactual is a quantified assessment of what would have happened if there had been no intervention in an area, or, to continue with the drug trial example, if no medication had been given to a sick patient.

A great ecological experiment that incorporates these techniques is found at La Selva research station in Costa Rica in which many comparative experiments are being carried out using plots of intact primary forest paired with plots of land that are, in all ecological aspects (e.g. elevation, gradient, size), very similar but were cut down or burnt different numbers of years ago (e.g. 10, 20, etc.) for a variety of purposes.

Recognizing the urgency of this problem for biodiversity conservation, the prominent journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Phil Trans for short) emphasized the need for a revised methodology of PA assessment in a recent special issue. As a way forward, this collection of articles proposes and presents several applications of a new control group-oriented technique called impact evaluation (Box 1). Impact evaluation (IE) is a growing field in conservation science. Like previous assessment strategies, IE measures the effects of an intervention (such as building a new PA). Unlike before, however, IE also explicitly considers what would have happened without any intervention, described by researchers as the “counterfactual” (Box 1).

The Phil Trans articles convincingly argue that considering the counterfactual is the only way to truly quantify how protected areas affect biodiversity, ecosystem conservation, and human welfare. Collectively, the authors show that this new method is crucial given the limited budgets in conservation. If implemented on a broad scale, IE could allow for much greater payoff in protected area development than is currently being observed.

While this goal of minimizing biodiversity loss and maximizing socioeconomic benefits may seem ambitious, there is already empirical evidence that suggests such a goal is within reach. So far, IE research has concentrated on measuring PA effectiveness in relation to changes in deforestation rates and species loss. With a baseline of unprotected areas for comparison, researchers have specifically quantified how the impact of a PA changes according to variation in environmental and socioeconomic characteristics. The Phil Trans issue documents how this approach is applied effectively in areas as varied as the Brazilian Amazon and freshwater systems in Northern Australia. Results of IE show, for example, that PA management has led to a greater reduction in the spread of an invasive mimosa plant in Kakadu National Park than would have been observed in the absence of a PA.

Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef on the eastern coast of Australia is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. While protection has allowed this ecosystem to remain a highly complex and biodiverse environment, this status and the future of the reef’s marine life remain under increasing threat. In large part, this is because it was initially judged ‘effective enough’ to have only a small percent of the area as specific ‘no-take’ zones, with commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration still allowed in many regions. This approach, now subject to ongoing review and revision, calls into question current methods for measuring the effectiveness of protected areas. Photo credit: Jurgen Freund / NaturePL

Socioeconomic effects are also more readily identified within the IE framework. The debate over PAs and poverty is long-running and controversial. In large part, this disagreement is because there is weak and inconclusive quantitative evidence of the impact of PAs on people. People instead rely on highly subjective assumptions and inconsistent anecdotal findings. However, under the direction of IE, conservation scientists can recommend reserve strategies that more accurately describe the direct benefits and costs of PAs for human welfare. For example, in Bolivia, an impact-based assessment of PAs provided empirical support for earlier qualitative findings that PAs are in fact not linked with poverty traps. Using pre-, mid- and post-implementation IE, researchers found similarly counterintuitive results in relation to the socioeconomic impacts of marine PAs in Indonesia.

It is understandably difficult to see why such an approach has not been the established practice for many years. Unfortunately, those in a position to transition to using IE in the context of PAs have little incentive to do so. In an increasing publication-centered field, academics are reluctant to commit to projects evaluating the impact of conservation initiatives because i) generally, prestige journals prefer to focus on core science and are less likely to publish such work and ii) funding for this line of research is limited. A recent opinion piece in Conservation Magazine from the directors at the Wildlife Conservation Society highlights this paradox.

On a more hopeful note, international funding agencies could be a lifeline for the facilitation of IE. These organizations not only have monetary means, they are also key stakeholders in that they control a vast proportion of the funding for PAs and would benefit greatly from the decreased cost: benefit ratio that impact evaluation could deliver.

In light of the continuing rate of species’ extinctions on our planet, it is crucial that we invest in preserving biodiversity. Protected areas have the potential to be highly valuable conservation tools, but to achieve this potential, we need a good way of objectively assessing the effectiveness of PAs. The Philosophical Transactions issue clearly demonstrates that widespread uptake of IE could fulfill this need and re-establish protection-based strategies as a cornerstone of conservation science.

References

[1] The Stockholm Declaration (1972), World Charter for Nature (1982), the Rio Declaration at the Earth Summit (1992), and the Johannesburg Declaration (2002).

justine4

Justine is a first-year PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at Princeton University. She is interested in the interaction between animal movement behavior and environmental heterogeneity, particularly in relation to individual and collective decision-making processes, as well as conservation applications.