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Offsetting Biodiversity: Greening or Greenwashing?

By Martine Maron and James Watson

There’s a new conservation controversy brewing. While carbon offsetting continues to be debated as a response to continuing emissions growth, biodiversity offsetting is increasingly being seized upon as a solution to unabated biodiversity loss. The idea is that damage to biodiversity from development can be neutralized by creating an “ecologically-equivalent” benefit elsewhere – thus achieving “no net loss” of biodiversity.

Amidst a biodiversity crisis, it’s easy to see the appeal: it promises a win-win solution to conflicts between development and biodiversity. Governments are increasingly recognizing that the money generated from major industries for offsets can be used to fund their own environmental programs.

In protected areas like the Great Barrier Reef, governments should not use offsets to meet existing commitments to manage protected areas. ©Tony Hudson (Wikimedia Commons).
In protected areas like the Great Barrier Reef, governments should not use offsets to meet existing commitments to manage protected areas. ©Tony Hudson (Wikimedia Commons).

In an article published this week in Nature, we point out that inappropriate application of offsetting carries its own risk. What if misplaced confidence in offsets means more biodiversity losses are permitted? With many governments actively developing offset policies, strict standards are needed to ensure the approach really does mean better conservation outcomes, rather than simply drawing a thin green veil over habitat destruction.

In addition to government-mandated schemes, major industries are spending billions of dollars each year planning and implementing offsets. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in an attempt to set global standards in a runaway policy arena, is currently developing urgently-needed guidance for biodiversity offsetting.

While trading biodiversity in this way sounds simple in theory, the approach is beset with challenges. Central to offsetting is the concept of “additionality.” That is, only benefits that would not otherwise have occurred can be counted as biodiversity gains and then used to counterbalance biodiversity losses elsewhere.

The benefits have to be additional to those that could have been expected to occur at an offset site anyway had the trade never happened. That means considering both likely future threats, but also previously agreed-upon commitments to redress those threats through international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Heritage Convention.

 

Yellowstone National Park is one of 197 natural World Heritage sites around the world -- a designation recognizing their importance to the common heritage of humanity and deserving the highest level of protection. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.
Yellowstone National Park is one of 197 natural World Heritage sites around the world — a designation recognizing their importance to the common heritage of humanity that merits the highest level of protection. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

Because protected areas are core tools for addressing biodiversity loss, governments have committed to these conventions to expand and manage threatened marine and terrestrial environments. International targets to protect 17 percent of the terrestrial and 10 percent of the marine realms have been translated into national-level targets. But meeting these targets is proving challenging – especially for developing countries.

Biodiversity offsets have started to be viewed as an alternative funding source. It is tempting to use this money to help manage existing protected areas, or to purchase new protected areas to help achieve existing commitments. Such arrangements can make both industry and government look good.

Perversely, attributing additional benefit to an offset in fact reveals what was otherwise not going to occur. Here’s why. If a nation genuinely intended to effectively manage its protected areas, then using offset money to do so would generate no additional benefit—thereby invalidating the offset. The only way for the offset to be valid is if there had never been an intention to manage the protected area effectively in the first place.

In other words, if promises have been made, then using offsets to keep them is admitting we planned to break them.

Less-developed countries with pressing humanitarian needs may argue that funneling limited public funds to protected areas is hard to defend. In such cases, admitting the commitments to protected area targets will not be met might well be reasonable. Such an admission would allow valid offsets to pay to achieve the original targets. For wealthy nations, however, attempts to link growth and improved management in protected areas to equivalent biodiversity loss should be scrutinized more harshly.

Governments have committed to effectively managing protected areas such as this rainforest in Africa, but scientists warn against governments using offsets to fulfill their commitments. Photo ©Martine Maron.
Governments have committed to effectively managing protected areas such as this rainforest in Africa, but scientists warn against governments using offsets to fulfill their commitments. Photo ©William A. Wallace.

So how can we ensure the protection of threatened nature as intended by global conventions while at the same time allowing beneficial biodiversity offsets?

In the Nature article, we make two suggestions. First, offset-driven conservation outcomes should be tallied separately. Nations should maintain efforts to meet their CBD and World Heritage commitments. Protected areas funded through offsets should be accounted for separately. This means that funding generated through offsets should not replace government funding for protected area management. Second, benefits from the new protected areas funded by offsets should always be reported alongside the losses that triggered their protection.

Offsets could have an important place in the conservation toolbox, but only with scrupulously designed policy to avoid giving nations – especially wealthy ones – a way to avoid funding previous commitments to protect biodiversity.

The emergence of biodiversity offsets as a mainstream conservation tool means that a focus on conservation ‘wins’ – without considering the losses – is riskier than ever. Offsetting unavoidable damage from development is an essential part of efforts to stem the biodiversity crisis. But the role offsets play in our conservation policy mix must be carefully scrutinized to avoid perverse outcomes for biodiversity.

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Martine Maron is associate professor in environmental management and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Queensland. James Watson directs the Global Climate Change program for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and is a principal research fellow at the University of Queensland.