Biodiversity Offsetting: Balancing Development with Conservation?

Worldwide, biodiversity is in drastic decline. As of 2014 the Living Planet Index showed us that global vertebrate species populations had halved in the space of just forty years (1). No one can argue that human activity has played the starring role in this abysmal show, but with a global population forecasted to grow from 7.1 to 9.7 billion by 2050 (2) and the recent COP21 Paris Climate Conference discussions detailing actions to cope with the global climate warming by at least 1°C, there is no sign of human impact on the natural world halting any time soon. Armed with these two facts, the current issue businesses and conservation academics alike are facing is this: finding the balance between business development and construction to accommodate for the unrelenting anthropogenic changes, and assuring numerous animal and plant species do not decent into the depths of the extinction abyss.

There are various proposed solutions to solving the business development versus biodiversity crisis, one of which is termed ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’ (BO). BO is a system whereby when a patch of biodiversity is destroyed, an equal or bigger patch, which is locally located near to the destroyed patch, of land for biodiversity is created (3). In other words, biodiversity is not lost, but is offset. Vitally, the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program (BBOP) highlights that no net loss of biodiversity is central to the offset ethos (4). Increasingly, countries are setting agendas and policies in place for offsetting (5). In theory this sounds like an easy and effective way to deal with both issues, and businesses are increasingly voluntarily opting to offset.

So, the business developers are happy, and biodiversity is maintained, right? Well, not quite. When you start thinking about the dynamics of the huge variety of different species groups in a certain area, their habitat requirements, and what ‘local’ is defined as by different people then you run into issues and conflicting opinions. For example, a conservation scientist likely defines ‘local’ in terms of the species that live in a certain area (i.e. the species’ range of travel, migration routes, soil quality in terms of plants, etc.), whereas businesses might define ‘local’ as within, for example, 5 miles of the original biodiversity patch or within the local jurisdiction of a council where the original patch resided. Who has the final say on what local may be defined as and whether this in the best interests of the biodiversity within the patch to be destroyed is usually not the people who are necessarily most informed about the species within. Likely, the decision is based on local politics and monetary gain rather than whether it is the utmost best interests for biodiversity. However, this can be understood to a certain degree – businesses are not going to pursue an action that will lose them money and one could argue that it is better that they’re doing something to reduce biodiversity loss than nothing at all. This is really where a grey area is met in terms of BO and it has been argued that BO governmental policy makers and business developers have, as it were, run with the idea as a solution without the full consent of scientific research (6).

Understandably there are growing concerns from conservationists about giving businesses free reign to use BO.  Many argue that it gives developers the ability destroy any patch of biodiversity with the excuse that they can spare up another area of land for said biodiversity. Of course, the complex interaction between different species, in their various habitats means that this is not possible. The ability to offset biodiversity completely depends on the species and habitats that are being dealt with and it is understandable that those who are making the development decisions do not have a detailed back ground on species interactions and ecology, and so could easily make ill-informed decisions regarding this. More often than not, developers do seek advice from conservation organisations which provide help with the ecological decisions which mitigates some of the knowledge gaps. However, there is still a great need for these gaps to be further reduced and there is still a lack of communication between conservation research academics and business developers (6).

Various studies name numerous limitations in BO in achieving ecologically sustainable results (6). A big issue is how the value of the patch being offset is initially assessed, but also the general uncertainty of the oncoming effects, as well as time lags of the effects of offsetting on biodiversity in the long term (3). Of course these, and the other aforementioned, issues need to be addressed before more conservationists become accepting of BO. Evidently, there is still a lack of policy from governmental bodies, although it is increasing, and whether BO is the ultimate answer to balancing development with biodiversity conservation is yet to be established. However, the real question will always remain: can a price be put on nature?

By Anna Woolman, 4th year Biology (Integrated Masters) student

References

Image: http://animal-picture.com/forest-animals.html/forest-animals-4-jpg

  1. WWF. 2014. Living Planet Report. [Online]. [Date accessed: 19th December 2015]. Available from: http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_lpr2014_low_res_full_report.pdf  
  2. United Nations. 2015. World Population Prospects. [Online]. [Date accessed: 19th December 2015]. Available from: http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Publications/Files/Key_Findings_WPP_2015.pdf
  3. Maron, M., Hobbs, R.J., Moilanen, A., Matthews, J.W., Christie, K., Gardner, T.A., Keith, D.A., Lindenmayer, D.B. and McAlpine, C.A. 2012. Faustian bargains? Restoration realities in the context of biodiversity offset policies. Biological Conservation. 155, pp.141-148.
  4. Business and Biodiversity Offset Programme. 2015. Biodiversity Offsets. [Date accessed: 19th December 2015]. Available from: http://bbop.forest-trends.org/pages/biodiversity_offsets
  5. Jenner, N. 2015. Exploring the challenges and opportunities for biodiversity offsets. Fauna and Flora International. 49(4), pp. 577 – 580.
  6. Thebaud, O., Boschetti, F., Jennings, S., Smith, A.D.M. and Pascoe, S. 2015. Of sets of offsets: Cumulative impacts and strategies for compensatory restoration. Ecological Modelling. 312, pp. 114 – 124.

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