BACKGROUND: Understanding how the conservation of nature can lead to improvement in human conditions is a research area with significant growth and attention. Progress towards effective conservation requires understanding mechanisms for achieving impact within complex social-ecological systems. Causal models are useful tools for defining plausible pathways from conservation actions to impacts on nature and people. Evaluating the potential of different strategies for delivering co-benefits for nature and people will require the use and testing of clear causal models that explicitly define the logic and assumptions behind cause and effect relationships.
OBJECTIVES AND METHODS: In this study, we outline criteria for credible causal models and systematically evaluated their use in a broad base of literature (~1,000 peer-reviewed and grey literature articles from a published systematic evidence map) on links between nature-based conservation actions and human well-being impacts.
RESULTS: Out of 1,027 publications identified, only ~20% of articles used any type of causal models to guide their work, and only 14 total articles fulfilled all criteria for credibility. Articles rarely tested the validity of models with empirical data.
IMPLICATIONS: Not using causal models risks poorly defined strategies, misunderstanding of potential mechanisms for affecting change, inefficient use of resources, and focusing on implausible efforts for achieving sustainability.