Economics, Environment

133 – Environmental budgets: two distinct questions

Environmental advocates damage their own cause by confusing two distinct questions about the public environmental budget.

In recent years I’ve put quite a bit of effort into trying to improve the environmental and natural resource outcomes from publicly funded programs. One of the challenges in this is convincing some people that it’s better to accept that some environmental assets should not be targets for public funds. By not attempting to save those assets that would be the most intractable and expensive to save, we can increase the chances of saving those assets that are a better bet. In taking this position, I’m focusing on a particular question:

1. How should the available budget be spent to get the highest-value environmental outcomes?

Some people get quite upset at the very idea that we should write off some parts of the environment. For example, among the public responses to the Victorian government’s recent Green Paper on biodiversity, there were many outraged objections to the very sensible statements in the document recognising that not everything can be saved. In taking this position, people are focusing on a different question:

2. How big should the environmental budget be?

Both questions are relevant, but they should not be mixed up. A classic example of mixing them up is the environmental advocate Stuart Pimm, who argues that concepts like triage are defeatist and unduly pessimistic and offer politicians and managers an easy way out.

It is quite possible to believe that the environmental budget should be much bigger (question 2) but to also believe that we should not attempt to save every threatened environmental asset (question 1). Even if you held the extremist position that the budget should be big enough to save absolutely every threatened environmental asset, it would still be sensible to accept that, for as long as it is not that big, hard decisions about how to spend the environmental budget cannot be avoided. (Incidentally, a view that we should save everything is really side-stepping another set of hard decisions, about how public resources should be allocated between competing issues such as environment, health, education, …).

The problem is that by objecting to hard-nosed decision making about the environment (on the grounds that the budget should be big enough that hard-nosed decision making is unnecessary), environmental advocates run the risk of reducing the environmental outcomes achieved by policy. Whatever one would like, one can be certain that the environmental budget will never be so big that hard decisions are unnecessary.

I have no problem with people advocating for a bigger budget for environmental programs, but I wish they would not compromise those programs by arguing against systematic, rigorous and tough decision making. In my view, if they do argue this way, and their arguments are accepted, the result will be bad for the environment: the loss of environmental outcomes from spreading resources thinly across most or all assets is likely to be greater than the environmental benefits from any extra resources that result from this advocacy.

A version of this problem arises in the way threatened species are handled in Australia. When a species or ecological community is officially recognised as threatened with extinction, the government is legally required to look like it is doing something to save it. A recovery plan is prepared and some money is spent on it, but the system does not take seriously the question of how public resources should be allocated among species. In theory, at least, all species are viewed as equally deserving, no matter whether they would be easy to save, or difficult to the point of impossibility. Inevitably, the system results in more extinctions than one that took a more hard-nosed approach.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia