Offsetting Biodiversity: Greening or Greenwashing?

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).

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).

But 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 —> Read More

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