Interest in biodiversity offsetting—creating a similar environment or habitat in a different location to replace ones damaged through development—has surged during the past decade.
Experts say they can be an effective way to reduce net harm to biodiversity, but they also can allow governments to renege on conservation commitments.
“Planning authorities and developers use biodiversity offsets to compensate for damage to species and habitats caused by human activities, by generating a biodiversity benefit elsewhere,” says Martine Maron, an associate professor at the University of Queensland.
“As the approach has gained popularity, governments have increasingly been recognizing that industry money generated by offsets could help them achieve national conservation goal targets to which they had already committed.”
Maron, research fellow at the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, says in most cases governments were simply failing to think through the implications of using offsets in this way.
“For an offset to be valid, it has to create biodiversity benefits beyond those that would occur anyway.
“So offsets can fund protected areas—but using them to achieve a government’s pre-existing commitments is an admission that those commitments were not otherwise going to be met.
“That might be a reasonable admission for developing nations, but is unlikely to be acceptable from wealthy nations.
“We recommend that future international conservation agreements explicitly require separate accounting of protected areas created as offsets.”
More harm than good?
James Watson, an associate professor in the School for Biological Sciences, says offsetting, if done appropriately, was likely to be a very important way of reducing net harm to biodiversity from development.
“But we are not always aware of the risks of using this relatively new tool,” he adds.
Watson says the research was relevant to all governments with protected area targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity—relating to both management of protected areas and increasing the extent of the protected area estate.
“We argue that buying or managing protected areas using funds from offsets cannot count towards meeting their previously agreed targets without making the offset invalid,” he says.
Watson says governments, businesses, and environmental non-governmental organizations involved in offset policy development and implementation were also affected.
“With care, biodiversity offsets can help reconcile development with conservation—but if they allow governments to renege on their existing commitments by stealth, biodiversity offsets could cause more harm than good,” he adds.
The research is published in Nature.
Source: University of Queensland