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Applying economics to 'wicked' problems: protecting the Great Barrier Reef

Published:11 February 2020

CQUniversity Professor John Rolfe.

CQUniversity Professor John Rolfe will present a way forward in dealing with 'wicked' problems faced by the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) during his Presidential Address at the 64th Annual Conference of the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society (AARES), held in Perth from 12-14 February.

“Simple policies and unrelated single instruments are ineffective when it comes to the GBR. There needs to be greater recognition that solutions for wicked problems involve packages of approaches over multiple dimensions,” said Prof Rolfe, who is regarded as one of the most influential academics in Australia in resource economics and regional development issues.

“To date, science advice has been very influential in developing policy initiatives to improve the protection of the GBR, including the establishment of water quality targets and priorities for action and funding, but this misses many of the human dimensions.

“It’s time to bring in the economists and social scientists alongside the marine scientists and environmentalists to better target the actions needed to reduce pressures and threats. While current work on costing and valuation are providing better insights into where funds can be allocated, more needs to be done to reveal the tradeoffs and advantages of different choices.”

“Many of the major challenges facing the GBR are economic, including slow adoption rates of better agricultural practices, improving cost-effectiveness, setting targets, selecting policy mechanisms and prioritising where funding and effort should be allocated.

“The increased focus by government agencies in recent years on measuring cost-effectiveness has been an important step forward, as it means we now have better ways of prioritising projects and evaluating investments. Our work on cost-effectiveness and thresholds has provided governments with more tools that help to ensure that public funds are being spent appropriately.

“However more needs to be done to improve allocations and maintain community trust. Our surveys of the Queensland public show that while community values for protecting the GBR have risen over time, there is now a much higher proportion of people objecting to paying extra to increase protection than a decade ago, rising from 6 per cent in 2008 to 21 per cent in 2019.

"It appears that to maintain community trust it is important to show that funds are being used efficiently, are targeted carefully, and maintain the tourism and recreation sectors alongside the environment.

"To achieve this there needs to be better alignment between science modelling and economic assessment, and greater recognition of the multiple interrelationships and feedback loops typical in wicked problems, as faced by what is arguably Australia’s most iconic asset."