How to Boost Conservation Funding

As work to protect nature ramps up, proven models show how the world might pay for it

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How to Boost Conservation Funding
Four seabirds fly above a large rock formation that rises from calm seas with pink and white clouds in the background. A coast is visible in the distant background.
Birds fly near a rock formation in the Galápagos Islands. The waters surrounding the islands gained significant new, long-term protections under a novel conservation financing deal signed by the Ecuadorian government in 2023
Eric Kruszewski/Design Pics Editorial Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With threats to people and nature accelerating—from climate change and damaging human activities—governments, businesses, communities, and scientists worldwide recognize the urgent need to ramp up conservation efforts. But funding for that conservation remains scarce, especially for the least developed countries and small island states—many of which have high ambition and thoughtful plans for protecting their natural environment.

Fortunately, there’s hope this could change soon. Major global meetings on climate change and biodiversity loss are coming up this fall, and delegates at those sessions must find financing solutions to help secure a nature-positive, climate-resilient future.

The science supports taking action now. Large, well-designed and enforced marine protected areas (MPAs), for example, are proven to improve biodiversity and climate change resilience within their boundaries and increase the productivity of neighboring fisheries, providing benefits to nature and people. However, establishing and maintaining effective MPAs requires significant financial resources, including for design, ongoing research, monitoring, enforcement, and management.  

Traditionally, protected area funding has come mostly from governments, with some assistance from philanthropic donors and NGOs. While important, these sources often can’t provide all the money needed and their commitments can fluctuate over time, creating uncertainty. And as the global community pursues the goal of protecting 30% of lands, fresh water, and oceans by 2030, there’s a need to identify and tap new sustainable, reliable, and diverse financing sources.

The Galápagos Islands of Ecuador, world renowned for their dazzling biodiversity—giant tortoises, hammerhead sharks, penguins, and more—offers one model for success. In 2023, the Ecuadorian government, with technical and financial support from the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project and other partners, completed a debt conversion that now provides dedicated financial resources for conservation in the Hermandad and Galápagos marine reserves in perpetuity. The deal generates around $17 million a year for conservation and will also save the country more than $1 billion in the borrowing costs on its debt.

Another proven tool is called project finance for permanence (PFP). This approach brings together rights-holders, governments, and philanthropic partners to secure long-term investment in conservation initiatives by tying sustained funding to tangible, measurable goals encompassing both social and environmental benefits. Through the Enduring Earth collaboration, Pew and our partners are working to advance PFPs worldwide.

And yet the largest source of financing for nature remains domestic government budgets, particularly in wealthier countries. The United Nations Environment Program State of Finance 2023 report finds that public money currently accounts for 82% of all financing for nature-based solutions.

International public funding is critical too: Governments from developed countries have committed to increase the biodiversity financing they provide to developing countries to at least $20 billion per year by 2025—roughly double what they provide now. But those developed-country governments are not on track to honor this commitment, and must find a way to do so now.

Blended finance—combining multiple financing sources together—can expand the available pot of resources. One example is the Global Funds for Coral Reefs, which combines public and philanthropic funding with investment capital to protect nature.

Debt-based finance can play a role too, as can debt conversions like the one in Galápagos. Governments and corporations can issue green bonds and loans to raise capital for projects, such as renewable energy provision, that protect the environment alongside delivering financial returns. Over half a trillion dollars of green bonds were issued in 2021.

And this is but a small sample of the solutions available. Others include results-based financing, impact investing, carbon credits, eco-taxes, fees and royalties, payments for ecosystem services, innovative insurance products … the list goes on.

So yes, when it comes to financing, the amounts matter, but how the money is used matters just as much: For example, how will the funds be channeled, and is a robust governance system in place to manage them? Who decides how the money is spent? Are the benefits being shared equitably between all relevant beneficiaries, taking into account gender, Indigenous rights, land tenure systems, and more? How much of the funding will be spent on the actual conservation, versus administrative costs and other spending? And is the funding tied to some assurance that the conservation will be durable?

The PFP model mentioned above requires answers to all of these questions before funding is released, which is one reason Pew and our partners are supporting the development of a PFP by Indigenous governments and organizations in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and likely will pursue others.

Governments, businesses, investors, NGOs, Indigenous peoples, and local communities must all act with urgency to develop and deploy sustainable revenue streams that provide long-term stability for nature. By embracing innovative funding models and fostering collaboration across sectors and communities, we can unlock the resources needed to safeguard nature’s treasures for generations to come.

Keith Lawrence is a project director with Pew’s conservation support team.

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