Climate change: balancing ecology and economy to save species

Australian banksia flower - Photo: copyright Bob Beale
Tuesday, 20 September, 2011

More species could be saved from the threat of extinction due to climate change thanks to a new model scientists have developed to guide allocation of conservation funding.

An international team led by Dr Brendan Wintle, of the University of Melbourne, has developed a pioneering decision-support model to guide the complex balancing act of getting the best bang for buck from conservation investments related to climate change.

The model incorporates both ecological and economic information to guide conservation investment most effectively to minimise an expected increase in extinctions, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"Our analysis supports the existing evidence that climate change will substantially accelerate extinction rates. So the first step is that we urgently need to limit global warming to avoid a mass extinction," says Dr Wintle.

"Given that we are probably committed to a two-degree warming by 2050, we need to develop effective strategies for minimizing the number of species that go extinct as a result.

“An advantage of our approach is that it makes the costs of a plan explicit, reducing the opportunity for politicization of decisions.

 “The best part about this model is that it can be applied to a range of environments, including many of Australia’s native ecosystems, to suggest how to allocate funding.”

The research team included Dr David Keith, a Professorial Fellow at the UNSW Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, who will take up a conjoint appointment as Professor of Botany later in the year. Dr Keith developed the species extinction models used in the decision analysis.

"Australia's unique biodiversity is already under threat from habitat loss, increased bushfire activity and invading pests and weeds," says Dr Keith. "Climate change will accelerate some of these threats or weaken the ability of native species and ecosystems to resist them.

"It is vital that we deal with the root cause of this process by limiting greenhouse gas emissions but it is not always clear how we should spread our efforts to soften the inevitable impacts. By combining what we know about climate science, ecology and economics in a risk analysis, our models will inform an effective response to our greatest challenge."

The scientists combined ecological predictions with an economic decision framework to prioritize conservation activities, and tested the model on one of world’s most biodiverse and highly threatened ecosystems; the South African fynbos.

"Our initial study focussed on a biodiversity hotspot in South Africa, but work is already well advanced on several Australian cases. Australian banksias are cousins of the African proteas and share a deep environmental and evolutionary history. Ecologically and climatically, parts of southern Australia share a great deal with South Africa and we expect to provide valuable guidance on how to reduce climate-related risks most effectively with the limited resources our governments and industries are prepared to spend."

Dr Wintle says that an interesting result of the analysis is that the optimal allocation of money depends strongly on the yearly conservation budget: "For example, if budgets were small then the whole budget would be dedicated to fire-fighting capacity. However, if more money were available, investment would be directed toward avoiding habitat loss due to clearing and weed invasion."

The team also included scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, CSIR South Africa, the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub, RMIT University, the University of Queensland and a group of European researchers.


Media contacts:

UNSW Faculty of Science media liaison - Bob Beale 0411 705 435

University of Melbourne media liaison - Sally Sherwen 0412 230 863