A global problem: the loss of biodiversity on the political agenda
The natural world is going down. Many species and their habitats, and ecosystem as a whole, are threatened by human activities. A broad consensus exists among scientists, politicians, businesses and in civil society as a whole that biodiversity loss is one of the biggest challenges that we are facing.
This is a problem not only because of the intrinsic value of nature but also because humans rely on a healthy environment as the basis for their existence (see Millenium Ecosystem assessment, Global Environmental Outlook).
As a result, politics have declared that actions need to be taken to halt this global loss urgently and immediately. The problem as such is not new. But it wasn’t until 1992 when the world’s leaders decided that it was time for a paradigm shift.
The result was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which since then has been ratified by 168 states and the European Union. It combines the preservation of the diversity of species and habitats and the genetic diversity with the sustainable use of the natural resources.
Many states have elaborated national biodiversity strategies and action plans to enforce the goals of the CBD at national or regional level. For instance the European Union has adopted its 2020 Biodiversity Strategy. The strategy includes a commitment to halt “the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020, and restoring them in so far as possible” (EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy).
As previous commitments to halt biodiversity loss haven’t proven to be effective two trends are important to note with regard to a policy change: the first is a stronger focus on restoration as part of the concept of “No Net Loss” and the second is the promotion of “new and innovative instruments and strategies” to achieve “No Net Loss”.
Policy change towards restoration as part of the concept of “No Net Loss”
The first observation is a stronger focus on restoration (or compensation) to counterbalance the loss, in addition to continued conservation efforts (which alone can’t achieve the goal of halting the loss).
In this regard, target 2 of the European Biodiversity Strategy claims to maintain and enhance ecosystems and their services “by establishing green infrastructure and restoring at least 15% of degraded ecosystems”. Supporting actions include the development of a strategic framework to set priorities for ecosystem restoration at sub-national, national and EU level (Action 6a), a Green Infrastructure Strategy by 2012 (action 6b), and an initiative to ensure there is no net loss of ecosystems and their services (e.g. through compensation or offsetting schemes) by 2015 (action 7b) (both initiated by the European Commission).
The concept of “No Net Loss” is being named as a key element. But what is the difference between “No Loss” and “No Net Loss”? While “No loss” would technically mean that no loss and consequently no development shall be admissible at all (which in practice won’t work), the term “net” in “No Net Loss” refers to the overall balance of loss and gain. This means that all environmental losses need to be counterbalanced by environmental gains (which may only be possible through restoration, e.g. planting trees for cutting trees) to maintain the status quo in terms of “No Net Loss” (that this concept is both complex and controversial has been highlighted again and again).
To trial and foster the concept of “No Net Loss”, the European Commission has established a Working Group on No Net Loss of Ecosystems and their Services and contracted a report on “Policy Options for an EU No Net Loss Initiative” (IEEP 2014). This report together with the work of the No Net Loss working group provided the basis for a public on-line consultationon a future (2015) EU initiative to ensure there is no net loss of ecosystems and their services (see above) that the European Commission has published in June 2014 (see also my previous post on this) .
New and innovative instruments and strategies to achieve “No Net Loss”
The second observation on the biodiversity policy of the European Union is the exploration and promotion of “new and innovative instruments and strategies to achieve ‘No Net Loss’ of biodiversity”. The adjectives “New” and “innovative” seem to open up a whole spectrum of possibilities.
However, the actual discussion focuses more on a set of keywords that can be grouped under the umbrella of “market based instruments”, e.g. “Natural Capital”, “Payments for Ecosystem Services”, “Tradable Development Rights”, “Tradable Permits”, “Habitat Banking” etc.
Biodiversity Offsets are often also assigned to this group of instruments because they imply a kind of “trade” between environmental losses and environmental gains. Nevertheless, while the term “Biodiversity Offsets” is relatively new and mostly used with reference to market based instruments, the underlying concept is much older.
Compensation for negative environmental impacts has been institutionalized in different schemes under the environmental legislation of countries like the US (Wetland Mitigation after Clean Water Act and Conservation Banking), Germany (“Eingriffsregelung” = Impact Mitigation Regulation after Federal Nature Protection Act), Canada (Fish habitat compensation after the Fisheries Act), Brazil (“forest set-aside offsets” after the Forest Code and “Project developers’ offsets” after the SNUC Act) and Australia (Biobanking in New South Wales and Bush Tender/Broker in Victoria). Furthermore, compensation approaches in the context of road planning exist, e.g. in the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden (Darbi et al. 2010).
Biodiversity Offsets on the ground
As has been said, compensation approaches for impacts on biological diversity have existed in numerous countries worldwide already before biodiversity offsets became popular.
Liability for damages is stipulated under various sectoral laws, e.g. environment, mining, forests, waste and water. The “Polluter Pays Principle” is widely recognized. According to this, generally the project proponent is liable for the damages caused by a development, and has therefore to put in place appropriate compensation measures. (Darbi 2010a)
In the scope of the promotion of biodiversity offsets as a new and innovative (but also inevitable) concept they have been translated into different contexts worldwide.
In countries with existing offsetting schemes this has led to “reshuffling” the discussion, e.g. in the US and Australia, or to foster the enforcement, e.g. in France.
In other countries the use of biodiversity offsets is being trialed, ranging from single pilots to whole campaigns to introduce offsets as a legally binding instrument, e.g. in the UK.