What’s the monetary value of our wildlife? Pretty high, according to Deloitte Access Economics, which has just released the first cost-benefit analysis of discovering new Australian species.
For every $1 invested in mapping Australia’s undiscovered biodiversity, the nation will reap up to $35 of economic benefits, the report says.
Scientists are already onboard – a 25-year mission has just been launched to discover and document all remaining species in our country in just a generation. The undertaking is immense: Australia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and it is thought that only 30% of our country’s estimated 750,000 species have so far been documented and named.
A study accompanying the report shows that we also need to re-evaluate the species we’ve already found. For example, a third of the nearly 900 discovered species of lizards and snakes might actually be different to what we thought.
The scientific effort to map new species is being led by the University of Western Australia’s Kevin Thiele, who is also Director of Taxonomy Australia at the Australian Academy of Science.
“Without this mission, it’s likely to take more than 400 years to discover all remaining Australian plants, animals, fungi and other organisms,” Thiele says. “A 16-fold increase in the annual rate of discovery is required over the next 25 years to meet this ambitious goal.”
Otherwise, he warns, many species may “go extinct before we know what they are, what they look like, what role they play in Australia’s environment, what opportunities they may offer and what threats they may face”.
The Taxonomy Australia mission aims to achieve its goal by harnessing new technologies like genome sequencing, artificial intelligence and supercomputing.
“For the first time in history we have the technologies needed to discover and name all Australian species in a generation,” Thiele says. “All we need now is support and investment.”
The lead author of the Deloitte Access Economics report, Matt Judkins, says this mission is ambitious, but will likely create both economic and social benefits for the country.
“Undertaking economic analysis to place a value on an activity is a common practice used to better prioritise investments and government support for initiatives,” he says.
“Discovering and naming all of Australia’s species of animals, plants, fungi and other organisms is no different. It has the potential to deliver a significant economic dividend to Australia’s future prosperity.”
He explains that benefits will come in a range of sectors, including biosecurity, biodiscovery, agricultural research and development, and biodiversity conservation.
Hugh Possingham, the Chief Scientist of Queensland, says that it is important to use the tools of economists in conservation and biodiversity.
“These two publications show how return on investment and cost-benefit analysis thinking can help us make better decisions for prioritising actions and scientific research,” he explains.
“The economic thinking in these papers helps us to understand biodiversity and manage Australia’s rich natural heritage far more efficiently; plus, it shows the enormous benefits to Australia of increased investment in science and science-informed actions.”
Lauren Fuge is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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