Making conservation ‘pay’: are we sending the right message?

I came across this remarkable image while researching the history of native vegetation regulation in South Australia. Prior to the Native Vegetation Act first being implemented in 1985 (which effectively ended broad scale land clearing in that State), the South Australian Government introduced the Heritage Agreements scheme – which aims to encourage  individual landholders to maintain or improve native vegetation of high conservation value on their properties. At the time (1980),these legally binding agreements were possibly one of the first examples of conservation covenants in Australia.

Now, mainly I was attracted to the imagery because it was incredibly kitschy (you can download the full booklet here [pdf]), but it also struck me how the message being communicated is the same as what still hear frequently today – how do we make biodiversity conservation economically attractive? In the case of the SA Heritage Agreements, the financial benefit was relatively minimal –  that is, there were tax breaks and financial assistance for fencing and management, but not enough to replace the forgone income from agriculture.

It’s probably not surprising that the landholders who initially engaged in the Heritage Agreements were those who held conservation-oriented values, whereas it did little to change the behaviour of landholders who were clearing extensively. In fact, clearing rates increased after the introduction of this program, and so shortly after legislation was introduced to place a total ban on land clearing.

The echidna’s tendency to build a nest out of $20 bills is considered a unique behaviour within the animal kingdom

This experience in SA led me to think about the Australian Government’s Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI), which gives landholders the opportunity to generate revenue through through carbon sequestration by providing access to domestic and international carbon markets. At the moment, there are four approved methodologies for sequestering carbon under the CFI, one of which (environmental plantings) is focussed on native vegetation – and another (managed regrowth) has been submitted for approval.

Now there are clear differences between the two schemes – the CFI is linked to external markets, and is obviously focused primarily on carbon sequestration (with some possible co-benefits for biodiversity and social livelihoods); whereas the main concern of Heritage Agreements was for the conservation of native vegetation for biodiversity.

The common theme however, is the promise of financial gain through participation in the scheme. But are the potential economic benefits derived through carbon sequestration a sufficient incentive to participate in the scheme?  That is, is it correct to assume that landholders will make the ‘economically rational‘ and switch to farming for carbon if it is more economical viable than producing crops or cattle?

The simple matter is that we are not rational beings, and that our values are a large driver into the choices we make. For example, a landholder who has a long and proud history in farming may not necessarily make the decision to incorporate carbon farming into their business model based purely on economics. Nooshin Torabi from RMIT argued in an article in The Conversation that we need a better handle on the social and cultural values which drive participation in schemes like the CFI drivers in order to ensure their design is robust.

There are also some more practical barriers to consider – for example, the CFI requires that carbon sinks remain in place for at least 100 years, which is might longer time frame than that typically considered from a business perspective. It’s also crucial that we get some better estimates on the kind of  administrative and management costs that landholders might incur to engage in the CFI, which at the moment are not that well understood.

If we are able to gain a good understanding of what role all of these factors play in driving participation in the CFI, this will go a long way to ensuring the scheme is a success on multiple fronts – for people, the climate and biodiversity.

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