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.
Conservation actions most often occur in peopled seascapes and landscapes. As a result, conservation decisions cannot rely solely on evidence from the natural sciences, but must also be guided by the social sciences, the arts and the humanities. However, we are concerned that too much of the current attention is on research that serves an instrumental purpose, by which we mean that the social sciences are used to justify and promote status quo conservation practices. The reasons for engaging the social sciences, as well as the arts and the humanities, go well beyond making conservation more effective. In this editorial, we briefly reflect on how expanding the types of social science research and the contributions of the arts and the humanities can help to achieve the transformative potential of conservation.