“The highly local nature of biodiversity is an asset”

More than a third of Switzerland’s plant, animal, and fungal species are endangered. The Confederation, cantons, and municipalities have stepped in with various instruments to halt species loss – so far, with limited success. Is this simply due to policy failure? CDE scientist Astrid Zabel explains why biodiversity goals often fail to materialize, and which instruments can promote species conservation.

“There is a great need for research to assess the biodiversity risks of investments,” says Astrid Zabel. Photo: CDE

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Astrid Zabel, Switzerland spends several hundred million Swiss francs annually to promote biodiversity – a sum that’s been on the rise in recent years. And yet here, like elsewhere, the loss of species is assuming ever more threatening proportions. What’s going wrong?

The programmes and measures taken to date have not been able to stop species loss. But we don’t know how things would have turned out without them. Also, it’s generally difficult to prove the exact impact of a measure on biodiversity. Ecosystems are complex, as are anthropogenic influences: This makes it difficult to clearly understand the connection between cause and effect of a measure.

But something must be going wrong?

There are any number of reasons why biodiversity goals may fail to materialize. Take input-based financial incentives – a classic in European agricultural policy. One example is the payments that farmers receive when they apply less fertilizer. But if the soils are still full of fertilizer or nutrients from the past, there is no measurable effect on biodiversity in the short term.


“Things can go wrong if different policy instruments are stacked on top of one another”


Are there other examples?

Another approach is to provide financial incentives for concrete results. This can also lead to problems, namely if an indicator is chosen that in itself produces good results, but then fails to lead to the actual goal. In India, for example, there was a programme a long time ago to reduce the numbers of dangerous snakes. Bringing the head of a dead snake earned you a reward. It was intended as an incentive for people to hunt the snakes. But instead they began to breed them...

Does it help to use different instruments for the same goal?

Things can go wrong there too, such as when different policy instruments are stacked on top of one another. In other words, when new policies are added without taking into account that their effectiveness might be reduced by existing ones. In Sweden, a reversed auction mechanism was created to encourage private forest owners to set aside species-rich stands for biodiversity conservation. There was a cap on the maximum amount that forest owners could receive through the auction. But an earlier instrument was still in use, stipulating that the state could expropriate the owners of forest areas that were particularly worthy of protection, and compensate them for this. Because the compensation was much higher than the maximum sum you could receive through an auction, only very few signed up for the auction programme.


“We must urgently work towards eliminating the negative effects of certain subsidies”


According to a study by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, there are 162 subsidies in Switzerland that harm biodiversity (see “More information” below). The subsidies amount to around CHF 40 billion annually. Wouldn’t it be most effective and cost-efficient to scrap these harmful subsidies?

I don’t consider abruptly scrapping the subsidies listed in the study to be the right way forward. This is also not what the authors of the study are calling for. Often it is unclear whether abolishing a subsidy will necessarily have a positive effect on biodiversity. Instead, we must urgently and committedly work towards eliminating the negative effects of the subsidies. It’s important to consider long-term effects when assessing whether such incentive measures should be scrapped or redesigned.


“Biodiversity is not well served if those affected don’t support the measures”


An important lever for promoting biodiversity is the preservation of ecologically valuable habitats. You are investigating how these can be most effectively connected at the regional level. What conclusions have you reached?

In Switzerland, ecological infrastructure is still at the planning stage. But we know from experience in other countries that getting the relevant stakeholders on board can contribute significantly to success. Deciding on instruments and adjusting them until they work best should be a joint learning process with the people directly affected by the measures. The broader and more diverse the stakeholder group, the greater the support for the measures.

Negotiation processes take a long time, and it may happen that no joint solution is found. Is this the right way to go, given the urgency of halting species loss?

An optimal solution, if there even is one, is rarely found on the first try. In fact, it can take a long time – because it’s important to experiment and allow for failures. Perhaps it would be quicker to implement measures through top-down approaches. But biodiversity is not well served if those affected don’t support the measures.


“In recent years, there has been a shift in mindset within the business sector”


In the run-up to the UN Biodiversity Conference, instruments are under discussion that affect the financial sector. The idea is to better and perhaps more quickly promote biodiversity protection. What are the latest developments here?

These discussions are very exciting. France, for example, passed a new law in spring 2021, according to which financial investments must disclose biodiversity risks. This is an important step forward. It creates awareness of the impact that land-based investments – for example, in mining or agriculture – have on biodiversity. Such tools are also being developed at the EU level and in Switzerland. In addition to concerns about reputation, which certainly play a role, there is a growing understanding within the financial sector of how dependent the economy is not only on the climate, but also on biodiversity. In recent years, there has been a shift in mindset on this.


“We shouldn’t ignore the possibility of investors from other countries stepping in”


Analyses show that the financial sector still has a lot of catching up to do in terms of transparency. Especially in the case of land deals, we may ask: How do you want to conduct an environmental impact assessment if you don’t even know where and in what you’re investing?

In terms of biodiversity, developments are indeed still in their infancy – especially also in terms of methods for assessing investment risks. And data are often sparse. However, we shouldn’t ignore the possibility of investors from other countries stepping in, if Europeans turn away from investments with high risks for biodiversity. There is still a great need for research on how this could be tackled comprehensively, to avoid shifts resulting in a net zero effect. Nevertheless, I find it extremely positive that something is now happening in Europe.


“There’s the risk of assessing the biodiversity impacts of investments based exclusively on Western values”


Even if there’s progress on this issue in Europe: The countries being invested in are often in the global South. Do the debates take this into account?

At the moment, these assessment tools are being developed in Europe and North America. You enter the financial data into the tool, along with information about where and in what you’re investing – and out comes, put simply, what is good or bad for biodiversity. Of course, such an assessment is based on values, and these values influence the result. Accordingly, it’s important to ask whose values they are. There is a risk that they are exclusively Western values – which in turn create incentives that are difficult to assess at the moment.

What contribution can or must science make here?

We can push this dialogue and encourage people to talk about values in general and the values of different cultural groups in particular. And we can look closely at the incentives connected to the tools. These would be very important contributions.


“Biodiversity conservation is spatially bound”


Doesn’t this type of instrument for promoting biodiversity conservation come with the risk that countries like Switzerland will outsource a significant share of the implementation to other parts of the world, as is already happening with the climate targets?

Biodiversity conservation is spatially bound, whereas climate protection can be carried out anywhere in the world, at least in theory. The highly local nature of biodiversity is an asset: if you see and perceive changes in your immediate environment, it’s easier to recognize the direct connection to your own actions – hopefully. 

In spring 2021, Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga said that Switzerland wants to work with other countries to secure 30 per cent of land and marine areas globally for biodiversity by 2030. How realistic is it to achieve this goal in heavily (sub)urbanized Switzerland?

Ambitious goals are good and important. The question is how they are implemented at the national level. Probably the greatest danger is the watering down of goals during implementation, such as by adding areas that no longer have very high biodiversity.   


Further information

WSL baseline study on Swiss subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity (in German)

Research project: Environmental policies for ecological infrastructures in rural landscapes (EMERALD)

Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) factsheets on biodiversity

UN Biodiversity Conference

The Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as the Biodiversity Convention, is the most important international agreement regarding protection of biodiversity. In 2010, the 10th Conference of the Parties adopted the Aichi Targets. These should have been achieved by 2020 – but were clearly missed. A successor agreement to the Aichi Agreement was to be adopted at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), originally planned for October 2020 in Kunming, China. However, the conference was postponed to October 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial negotiations were then held via videoconference, resulting in a somewhat vague declaration in which protection of 30 per cent of Earth’s surface plays a central role. Continued negotiations are scheduled for March 2022 in Geneva. The successor agreement to the Aichi Targets is planned to be adopted in a face-to-face meeting in April/May 2022 in China.

Series covering the Conference

The Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and the Wyss Academy for Nature, University of Bern, are illuminating some of the most important aspects of the ongoing negotiations in interviews with their experts. In addition, we wish to draw attention to the presentations held at the “Swiss Forum on Conservation Biology” online conferences SWIFCOB21 and SWIFCOB22, organized by the Swiss Biodiversity Forum of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. They are available in German and French.