Offsetting biodiversity losses — a guest post by Marie Brown

This is a guest post on behalf of Marie Brown, Senior Pol­icy Ana­lyst for Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Soci­ety (EDS), spe­cial­iz­ing in bio­di­ver­sity pol­icy. The text by Veronika Meduna (from Radio New Zealand National) was based on a radio inter­view with Marie Brown (see below for the link to the pod­cast).

This com­ment is the expres­sion of the author’s thoughts and expe­ri­ences and 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 Marie’s rea­son­ing), please leave a reply below! This post has orig­i­nally been pub­lished by Radio New Zealand National.

Photo: Bryce McQuil­lan, Source:

Bio­di­ver­sity con­tin­ues to decline in New Zealand and world­wide. One of the meth­ods gov­ern­ments and com­pa­nies use to mit­i­gate impacts from devel­op­ment projects is the off­set­ting of bio­di­ver­sity losses in one area with bio­di­ver­sity gains in another, but the Envi­ron­men­tal Defence Soci­ety is call­ing for stronger national poli­cies to pre­vent ongo­ing decline.

EDS pol­icy ana­lyst Marie Brown says the pur­pose of bio­di­ver­sity off­sets is to address dam­age to ecosys­tems in a devel­op­ment con­text, with the over­all aim of no net losses of bio­log­i­cal diversity.

“What that amounts to in prac­tice is that a devel­oper agrees to a com­pen­sa­tion kind of con­ser­va­tion pro­gramme and the nature and scale of that would be broadly equiv­a­lent to what’s been lost in the devel­op­ment process.”

Trade-offs are reg­u­larly nego­ti­ated as part of the resource con­sent appli­ca­tion process under the Resource Man­age­ment Act, but bio­di­ver­sity off­sets dif­fer in that they aim for no net loss, and ide­ally even net gain.

Pay­ment can be used as part of the bio­di­ver­sity off­set process, but can be “quite risky because what you’re doing is you’re con­vert­ing nat­ural cap­i­tal, which you are going to lose any­way, into finan­cial cap­i­tal, and the key thing is to make sure it gets con­verted back again, not just to nat­ural cap­i­tal but to some­thing that is sim­i­lar in value”.

Lis­ten to the radio inter­view as podcast

Marie Brown is a co-author of the recent book Van­ish­ing Nature, and in the pod­cast she dis­cusses the chal­lenges in valu­ing nature: Van­ish­ing Nature ( audio, 20 min 27 sec )

Some­times, she says, a finan­cial off­set can lead to a bet­ter out­come. “If the pro­po­nent of the devel­op­ment is not keen, will­ing or able to engage with a con­ser­va­tion project, an equiv­a­lent project can be costed and another organ­i­sa­tion or agency iden­ti­fied to carry it out. Then it becomes a cheque writ­ing exer­cise. How­ever, the gains at the end are more secure, so it’s not always a bad idea.”

How­ever, in some instances she says it can become “cash for damage”.

It’s sim­ply fac­tored in as a com­pli­ance cost within the devel­op­ment and peo­ple for­get about the point of off­sets being the very final option of the mit­i­ga­tion hier­ar­chy where avoid­ance is always your best bet.

In New Zealand, bio­di­ver­sity off­sets are included in sev­eral regional pol­icy state­ments and plans, but are not manda­tory, and the EDS is call­ing for statu­tory guid­ance and more clar­ity on para­me­ters that pro­po­nents of devel­op­ment projects have to meet.

Marie Brown says there are sev­eral exam­ples of com­pa­nies that take their respon­si­bil­i­ties seri­ously but that does not mean cer­tain suc­cess, “not because of lack of effort but because eco­log­i­cal time­lines are very dif­fer­ent to human timelines”.

“Over­all an enhanced pol­icy con­text will be a really use­ful oper­at­ing min­i­mum for the good guys and it will give the bad guys a goal, and a really cru­cial goal.”

Com­pli­ance and enforce­ment are also impor­tant issues. Dur­ing her PhD research, Marie Brown found that less than half of the eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions in resource con­sents were met. “A lot of energy goes into the front part of the process … but as soon as the first sod is turned, there’s an awful lot fewer peo­ple watch­ing, and that means that the loss to nature is some­times silent”.

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