Compensation for biodiversity losses: can varied approaches deliver? A comment by Carlos Ferreira

This is a guest post by Car­los Fer­reira, Research Assis­tant in the Cen­ter for Busi­ness in Soci­ety at Coven­try Uni­ver­sity. He can be reached at

It is the expres­sion of the author’s thoughts and expe­ri­ences and as such is acknowl­edged as a fruit­ful con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­cus­sion on bio­di­ver­sity off­sets. If you want to react or clar­ify your own posi­tion (under­pin or dis­prove Car­los’ rea­son­ing), please leave a reply below!

Off­set­ting bio­di­ver­sity: wide­spread and varied

A visit to the Species­Bank­ing web­site shows that the prac­tice of com­pen­sat­ing for bio­di­ver­sity losses is wide­spread. Off­set­ting bio­di­ver­sity losses is an increas­ingly impor­tant mech­a­nism for bal­anc­ing out devel­op­ment and con­ser­va­tion, with more and more gov­ern­ments cre­at­ing reg­u­la­tion or issu­ing guid­ance for its usage, often in the con­text of plan­ning reg­u­la­tions. In fact, in sev­eral coun­tries it is pos­si­ble to observe that var­i­ous off­set­ting pro­grammes are cur­rently in oper­a­tion. The fig­ure illus­trates this, high­light­ing the num­ber of offi­cial bio­di­ver­sity off­sets pro­grammes per country.

Each of these indi­vid­ual exam­ples of bio­di­ver­sity off­sets is pred­i­cated on spe­cific objec­tives, spe­cific reg­u­la­tion and a spe­cific set way of doing things; no two pro­grammes are the same. In com­mon, the var­i­ous indi­vid­ual pro­grammes share the exis­tence of reg­u­la­tor guid­ance spec­i­fy­ing that bio­di­ver­sity dam­age must be com­pen­sated, and the idea of no net loss of bio­di­ver­sity. How­ever, there is cur­rently no stan­dard form of cal­cu­lat­ing bio­di­ver­sity losses and gains; even the Busi­ness and Bio­di­ver­sity Off­sets Programme’s 2012 Stan­dard on Bio­di­ver­sity Off­set­ting recog­nised this, advo­cat­ing that mea­sure­ments should adapt­able, with indi­vid­ual mech­a­nisms for demon­strat­ing equiv­a­lence between bio­di­ver­sity lost and gain. As a result, the var­i­ous bio­di­ver­sity off­set­ting pro­grammes remain experimental.

Dip­ping a toe: the diverse tools of bio­di­ver­sity offsetting

Part of the rea­son for the dif­fi­culty in cre­at­ing stan­dard bio­di­ver­sity mea­sure­ment tools lies with what is being mea­sured: bio­di­ver­sity is com­plex, and can refer to aspects of nature which go from the genetic level to the num­ber of indi­vid­u­als in a species, or the rela­tion­ship between species in an ecosys­tem. From the point of view of eco­log­i­cal sci­ences, this cre­ates the prob­lem of defin­ing what is meant by “bio­di­ver­sity” in each spe­cific pro­gramme, in order to pro­duce an appro­pri­ate tool for each case.

The sec­ond prob­lem lies with what aspects of bio­di­ver­sity is under analy­sis in each case. For exam­ple, in the US Mit­i­ga­tion Bank­ing pro­gramme, com­pen­sa­tion is gen­er­ally sought when indi­vid­u­als of a listed species are lost; in Ger­many, the focus is on the improve­ment of bio­di­ver­sity indi­ca­tors in a given area; and in the UK, the focus is on com­pen­sat­ing for losses of pre-defined ecosys­tem types. Obvi­ously, most of the tools devel­oped in one of these pro­grammes are not usable in another.

The third and final prob­lem is the exist­ing trade-off between pre­ci­sion in mea­sure­ment and usabil­ity of the tool. A more pre­cise bio­di­ver­sity mea­sure­ment mech­a­nism has a bet­ter poten­tial when address­ing the need to demon­strate no net loss of bio­di­ver­sity, but it makes it more dif­fi­cult to achieve that objec­tive in prac­tice. The result­ing cal­cu­la­tions can be so pre­cise as to com­pletely deny the pos­si­bil­ity of com­pen­sat­ing for bio­di­ver­sity, by mak­ing bio­di­ver­sity lost entirely unique and not liable to offsetting.

With all these issues asso­ci­ated in cal­cu­lat­ing no net loss of bio­di­ver­sity, it would appear that bio­di­ver­sity off­set­ting faces seri­ous chal­lenges. But are there new oppor­tu­ni­ties at the same time?

Cur­rent chal­lenges, future opportunities?

For all the prob­lems in devel­op­ing cal­cu­la­tion tools, the sin­gle great­est chal­lenge for bio­di­ver­sity off-setting comes from oppo­si­tion at local level. Grass­roots and NGO-led cam­paigns have suc­cess­fully man­aged to com­mu­ni­cate their neg­a­tive opin­ions about bio­di­ver­sity off­set­ting, through on-the-ground and online cam­paigns, and have in the process been noticed by the main­stream media. As a con­se­quence, bio­di­ver­sity off­set­ting pro­mot­ers may be los­ing con­trol of the mes­sage: while they have attempted to asso­ciate bio­di­ver­sity off­set­ting as no net loss of bio­di­ver­sity, oppo­si­tion cam­paign­ers have framed it as a license to trash nature.

This doesn’t need to dis­cour­age pro­mot­ers of bio­di­ver­sity off­set­ting. Bet­ter quan­tifi­ca­tion, with the explicit objec­tive of demon­strat­ing no net loss of bio­di­ver­sity, is what dis­tin­guishes bio­di­ver­sity off­sets from other forms of com­pen­sat­ing for neg­a­tive nature impacts. The poten­tial effects in sim­pli­fy­ing the nego­ti­a­tions about appro­pri­ate com­pen­sa­tion and achiev­ing stake­holder buy-in are the ad-vantage of bio­di­ver­sity off­set­ting over alter­na­tive mech­a­nisms of obtain­ing com­pen­sa­tion for bio­di­ver­sity losses. And despite the ongo­ing prob­lems with the tools to deliver this, bio­di­ver­sity off­sets still con­sti­tute one of the most thor­ough ways to bal­ance out eco­nomic devel­op­ment and bio­di­ver­sity conservation.

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