Gulf states can succeed where Europe failed when it comes to protecting biodiversity

Conservation is costly, which is why it needs to be incentivised and done on solid foundations

The number of protected areas in the Arabian Peninsula is growing. Getty
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Protecting biodiversity is one of those activities where most governments’ zeal for talking the talk is often matched by their reluctance to walk the walk, due to the considerable economic costs that designating protected areas usually implies. Sadly, the EU has fallen into this trap, as recent studies confirm the total failure of certain elements of its conservation policy. By studying and learning from this dysfunction, Gulf countries can become models of biodiversity protection.

When a certain form of costly behaviour is considered morally favourable, the result is a dual incentive. On the one hand, people want to be perceived to be engaging in the behaviour, to appear righteous and earn the associated social prestige. On the other, they want to covertly avoid pursuing that behaviour, because of the costs it entails.

At present, the topical illustration of this phenomenon is “environmental friendliness”, with self-proclaimed green celebrities often traveling by private jet as they seek to avoid the cost of having to mingle with normal people in an airport. The existence of an incentive to deceive others in the environmental domain makes economists particularly suspicious of green agendas, underscoring the need to conduct meticulous research regarding the actual effectiveness of green policies.

Today, the availability of high-resolution satellite imagery and the affordability of computing power means that scholars can conduct highly sophisticated research on issues such as biodiversity. In yesteryear, more primitive tools were deployed, though that did not prevent scholars from detecting one of the most famous examples of a nominally green policy backfiring in spectacular fashion: the 1973 US Endangered Species Act.

The existence of an incentive to deceive others in the environmental domain makes economists particularly suspicious of green agendas

According to the legislation, upon detecting the presence of an endangered species in a plot of land, it would be transformed into a protected conservation area. The unintended consequence was colloquially referred to as “shoot, shovel and shut up”, as it gave farmers an incentive to expunge their land from endangered species before government agents could discover them and decommercialise the property. During the years it took for the suitable reforms to be implemented, extinction rates rose for certain species.

Garden-variety public sector incompetence and bureaucratic sclerosis probably account for this failed policy. However, it is likely that there was also a role for politicians caring more about implementing a policy that sounds effective, regardless of how effective (or counterproductive) it actually is. After all, who could argue with the idea of fencing off the habitat of a rare owl?

In 2023, a new paper by Dr Tristan Earle Grupp, Dr Prakash Mishra, Dr Arthur van Benthem (all at the University of Pennsylvania), and Dr Mathias Reynaert (Toulouse School of Economics) suggests similar mechanisms at work in the EU. The authors used the staggered designation of protected areas across the bloc since 1985 to infer the effectiveness of the designations in promoting biodiversity. They leveraged detailed satellite imagery relating to vegetation and night lights.

The paper’s sobering conclusion was that the protected area policies had no meaningful effect on biodiversity. The authors speculated that EU policymakers were successfully identifying land that has either never been threatened, or has recently been greening. This in turn was likely caused by the officials selecting sites with low economic opportunity costs in the pursuit of green credentials. Alternatively, policymakers have sought low-hanging fruit in their attempts to adhere to the stipulations of area-based targets, such as the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity agreement, which requires 30 per cent of land area to be protected by 2030.

In Gulf countries, biodiversity remains an important goal, especially along coastal areas where economic activities always carry a higher risk of posing threats to wildlife. It is a good idea to start institutionalising the relationship between the local research community and environmental policy, so that research conducted by local scholars on which areas are in greatest need of protection and how to protect them is embedded into policymaking from the beginning, rather than becoming an afterthought, as it did in the EU.

Getting as much biodiversity data in the region as possible and making it available to researchers in real time can also help to ensure that policies not yielding expected outcomes can be refined quickly and effectively. And that in turn helps to ensure that green policies are truly dispassionate.

A nice template in the context of ocean protection in the Arabian Gulf was recently provided in a paper by Dr Claire Fieseler and her colleagues, published in the September 2023 issue of Royal Society Open Science. The study spells out how policymakers and researchers can collaborate on improving marine biodiversity in the Gulf, building on the existing success of the Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment, an eight-member coalition that coordinates biodiversity efforts in the region.

The UAE hosting Cop28 represents the latest step in a sequence of tangible green steps taken by Gulf countries under the Sustainability Agenda framework. The summit affirmed the fact that protecting the environment entails significant economic cost – a fact that incentivised too many European policymakers to cut corners and go for image over authenticity in their environmental policies. Involving the local research community in the genesis of environmental policy will help the Gulf countries overcome some of the flaws exposed by the EU’s recent conservation efforts.

Published: January 02, 2024, 7:00 AM