Friday, September 09, 2016

The real cost of a predator-free New Zealand

Back in July, National announced a goal of making New Zealand predator-free by 2050. Its an ambitious and worthy goal, with huge public support. But the funding they've announced for it - $28 million over four years - is so paltry that it calls the entire thing into question. Since then, people have been wondering how much it will actually cost (and if the government even knows). Now, thanks to a request lodged through FYI, the public OIA request system, we know the answers.

The Department of Conservation released 110 pages of information on its predator-free target, including a Cabinet paper and a business case. The first surprise is that while the Cabinet paper is big on goals and specific about what the immediate funding will be spent on, nowhere does it even hint how much meeting the target will actually cost. Cabinet has no idea how much money they have committed to spend. Which doesn't speak strongly of their actual commitment.

That said, they are aware that its going to cost them a lot more than they're spending. While they're relying on Science! to find a magic solution, and are expecting to spend $1 million a year on it for the next four years, DoC has told them explicitly that:

The funding available through the challenge is modest relative to the size of the task. To make real progress, we consider that targeted scientific research would require at least $15 million funding over five years.

Their "solution" to this is that "Predator Free NZ Ltd be charged with attracting additional funding from non-government sources". That's right: the government "plans" to meet a key target by begging. Given that the amount of money is so trivial on a government scale - $3 million a year isn't even pocket change, to the extent that it could be funded merely by cutting the pay of Ministers to the level of the top 1% - you again have to question whether they're serious.

Finally, while DoC is clearly not keen on giving a long-term cost, one can be parsed out of the information they provide. The business case includes the costs of previous predator-control initiatives, which DoC uses to get an estimate of how effective spending might be. These range from 3,500 to 33,500 ha per million dollars spent, depending on the effectiveness of magic Science! and their ability to gain co-funding from business:
Under these scenarios $4 million per year might yield around 150,000 hectares (range 40 - 200,000 hectares) of predator suppressed land in four years, and 600,000 hectares (range 160-800,000) in ten.

Which means that they're estimating 9375 ha / $million in the short term, and 15,000 ha / $million in the long term. Combining this with their estimate that there are approximately 26 million hectares to be cleared gives us a total cost of 1.73 - 2.77 billion dollars. Or, an annualised cost over 35 years of $50 - $80 million.

And that's not so bad. Its a policy, but not a hefty one (big policies cost hundreds of millions a year, small ones ten million). In comparison to DoC's budget, it would mean a 15 - 20% increase, funnelled to their new corporate offshoot. And again, that doesn't seem huge. Make New Zealand predator-free for a 20% increase in DoC funding? Where do I sign up? But instead, DoC, for some reason, appears to have tried to hide this cost. And that really doesn't speak well of their relationship with senior Ministers, or of the government's expected commitment if they had known what they were signing up for.