RFF Initiative

Conservation ROI: Maximizing Returns on Environmental Conservation Investments

Researchers at RFF are helping public and private conservation organizations focus on projects that get the biggest “bang for the buck.”

Businesses, governments, and communities constantly face the reality that funding is limited and devote significant efforts to identifying how to get the most out of their spending and investments. "Return on investment" (ROI) analysis uses information on costs, risks, and benefits, and is a fairly routine way of evaluating conventional projects—such as building a new highway or launching a consumer product.

However, measuring the ROI of investments in nature conservation projects is not so simple or routine. It requires being able to quantify changes in environmental outcomes that arise from conservation activity (such as cleaner air or more biodiversity) and weigh them against potential threats (such as commercial land use that would occur without conservation). Having tools to measure the ROI of conservation projects could empower organizations to focus efforts in high-priority areas that achieve the biggest "bang for the buck."

Partnership with The Nature Conservancy

RFF teamed up with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to develop such tools and determine the best approach for evaluating "conservation ROI." Using spatial mapping, coupled with innovations in evaluating the benefits of natural systems and the latest data available, the research team has identified more effective ways to assess areas for conservation investments. These new approaches can help government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and companies to evaluate trade-offs, minimize environmental impacts, and mitigate costs.

Short-term outcomes include:

  • Understanding the motivations behind conservation investments
  • Measuring possible outcomes for targeting return on investment
  • Identifying potential locations for conservation investments

Online Mapping Tool

The RFF-TNC partnership was created not only to develop methods for measuring conservation ROI, but also to apply those methods on the ground in ways useful to conservation decisionmakers. To that end, the team is currently developing an interactive, online mapping tool (the Forest Conservation Targeting Tool) to identify and predict how conservation spending will improve ecological conditions in specific places and given specific budget constraints. The tool enables users to explore trade-offs among investments in biodiversity, water quality, carbon sequestration, and so on, to see how and where to get the best return.