In 2010 world governments agreed to eliminate, phase out or reform incentives that harm biodiversity by 2020. Yet few governments have even identified such incentives, never mind taking action on them. While some subsidies are well studied, such as in fisheries and fossil fuel production, there is an urgent need for the conservation community to study the potential effects a broader array of subsidies have on biodiversity. In addition, we need a better understanding of who benefits from these subsidies. We term this pursuit ‘subsidy accountability’, which is crucial but challenging work crossing disciplines and government ministries. It requires ecologists, forensic accountants, and policy wonks, calculating and forecasting the positive and negative effects of subsidies and their elimination on biodiversity and vulnerable human populations. The Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recently concluded that action on biodiversity loss requires transformative economic change; true action on subsidies is one step towards such change.
Without widespread and immediate changes in human values and activities, massive tracts of natural habitat will be degraded to the detriment of those ecosystems, ecosystem services, and many threatened taxa—in the oceans and elsewhere. Despite this, the conservation movement has yet to devote much attention to the intentional project of widespread norm change. By one logic, the ecosystem services concept offers a means of integrating meaningful conservation into decision making by diverse government and corporate actors, potentially normalizing conservation. But normalizing conservation would require not only the uptake of ecosystem-services concepts but also widespread changes in conservation practice and stewardship values—on a scale that far exceeds what we have witnessed to date.