Measuring the True Cost of Conservation

Environmental conservation expert discusses how his new research will play a key role in promoting a greener future.

By Katherine Gianni

For decades, scientists have been warning about potential future effects of global climate change, including more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought, and sharp increases in the number, duration, and intensity of tropical storms. And since the start of 2020, we’ve seen natural disasters in record-breaking numbers, from the wildfires that ravaged California and Colorado, to most consecutive days with temperatures skyrocketing over 100 degrees in places like Arizona. Environmental concerns are continually creeping to a broader, national stage: issues of climate change and conservation received more attention during the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020 than in any other presidential debate in history.

But when it comes to the topic of safeguarding the environment, Boston University Earth & Environment Assistant Professor Christoph Nolte is hardly a newcomer. He’s spent the majority of his academic career studying the effectiveness of conservation, asking key questions about where concerted efforts take place, and what difference they make for our world at large. To inform future decisions about conservation policy, Assistant Professor Nolte has now created the first high-resolution map of land value in the United states — a tool he says will better estimate environmental conservation costs, inform policy recommendations, and help peer academics conduct their own research on rebuilding and protecting what’s left of our natural resources and the biodiversity within our ecosystems. We sat down with him to learn more.

Estimated fair market value of all properties in the United States (3D visualization). Photo courtesy of Christoph Nolte, Boston University.

You’ve created the first high-resolution map of U.S. land value. What spurred this research?

Ignoring costs can make us blind to the negative effects of regulation, often borne by those without a voice. In the case of voluntary conservation programs, ignoring cost can mean that we end up with a proposal, but insufficient funding. If we want to make informed societal decisions about conservation efforts, we need reliable, publicly accessible estimates of its cost.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to get good data for conservation cost. Conservation organizations don’t freely share their financial records. Land prices can be good substitutes for data on conservation cost, but such data is valuable, sensitive, and unavailable to the public in most countries. So when large-scale land price data in the United States became available to academics for free for the first time, this created an exciting opportunity to create the first high-resolution map of land value and see how well it would predict conservation cost.

What data did you use to generate this map?

Correlations between actual conservation cost (4128 land acquisitions) and eight different cost proxies in the literature. “PLACES FMV” refers to the high-resolution land value map. Photo courtesy of Christoph Nolte, Boston University.

What does this map tell us about environmental conservation costs? Why is it essential to have accurate land value data?

How can your research help to educate policymakers on future conservation plans and priorities? Why is this important?

More accurate cost data can also change recommendations about where conservation investments should go. When I reproduced recent work, about one quarter of the sites recommended for species protection shifted from one location to another, for instance, from expensive Long Island to slightly less expensive Southeastern Massachusetts. While this result should be taken with a grain of salt, it shows that the quality of cost data matters. The good news is that the cost map is now published, so anyone can incorporate it in their analyses and revisit their earlier findings.

How can people best use this data when thinking about environmental conservation as it relates to their day to day lives?

A closer look at many cheap offsetting schemes suggests that they don’t actually reduce emission by very much. But their existence has the side-effect that we are getting our hopes up that there might be a cheap way to get around the conservation problem. In reality, win-win situations are rare, and trade-offs are real. This might be difficult to accept, but we should not ignore it, even if we so desperately want to feel good about our own levels of consumption.

Despite costs being much higher than originally estimated, why is conservation still such an important investment?

Left: differences in policy budgets needed to achieve proposed species protection targets in the United States. “Withey et al.” refers to the cost proxy used in previous studies. Right: changes in spatial priorities for species conservation when high-resolution land cost estimates are used. Photo courtesy of Christoph Nolte, Boston University.

Science tells us about the consequences of our actions, but it doesn’t tell us what to do. The more difficult question is how much we, as individuals and as a society, care about these outcomes, and what we are willing to give up for them. There are 8 billion of us. What each of us cares about is shaped by our diverse beliefs and morals, our upbringing, the people in our lives, the media we consume, the things we enjoy doing, etc. Given my affiliation, it probably won’t be a surprise that I feel positively about policies that reduce our collective human footprint, but it is unwise to elevate anyone’s individual worldview to a standard. Instead, I think what it is desirable to have a broader societal conservation of well-informed citizens that make those decisions together. My job, alongside that of thousands of other colleagues, is to provide the tools that can help us gain clarity about what’s at stake.

Are there any other surprising findings? Could this data have other applications in areas outside of conservation (for example, real estate)?

In your opinion, what is the single most important conservation issue facing the world today?

Estimated fair market value of all properties in the United States. Photo courtesy Christoph Nolte, Boston University.

What do you hope people take away from this project? What are you planning to research next?

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Professor Nolte on Twitter @Christoph_Nolte. For research news and updates from BU’s Department of Earth & Environment, follow @BUEarth.

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