The theory-practice gap in biodiversity offsets — a comment by Alan Key

This is a guest post by Alan Key from Aus­tralian con­sul­tancy Earth­trade. 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 Alan’s rea­son­ing), please leave a reply below!

Science policy gapThe main prob­lems that I see (note that we have just started our 53rd project) is that there is a dis­junct between the­ory and practice. 

Regard­less of what we want to occur, the off­set has to make com­mer­cial sense or man­age­ment will fal­ter and the envi­ron­men­tal out­comes compromised.

Com­mer­cial sense of bio­di­ver­sity offsets

I apol­o­gise if this offends — but it is a prag­matic fact. SO, when we design off­sets — they have to be designed from the tech­ni­cal objec­tives and also from the com­mer­cial, finan­cial and legal perspective. 

There­fore, as with any com­mer­cial activ­ity, it comes down to scale. It is more finan­cially and legally fea­si­ble although more dif­fi­cult, to design off­sets that have a com­mer­cial scale. The scale will be depen­dent on the coun­try, envi­ron­men­tal con­straints, envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors, eco­nom­ics, social and geog­ra­phy etc. The dif­fi­culty some­times lies within the abil­ity of the leg­isla­tive and pol­icy frame­work to be able to deal with these factors.

Evo­lu­tion of bio­di­ver­sity off­sets over time

Another point is the pro­gres­sion of the off­set over time. Let us con­sider the “evo­lu­tion” of an off­set. First we have the pio­neer species which col­o­nize the site, then we progress through var­i­ous stages of the off­sets matu­rity. Dur­ing each stage, the off­set will meet the needs of dif­fer­ent species and dif­fer­ent envi­ron­men­tal ser­vices will be deliv­ered. So these need to be con­sid­ered and designed within the off­set from the out­set. As an exam­ple — when you first replant trees in an area — they will sequester car­bon — hence a car­bon off­set. After a time –they will become for­age or habi­tat for other species — in Aus­tralia — pos­si­bly the Koala. Some years after that — the sub canopy and or ground layer will estab­lish and pro­vide habi­tat for other species.
This “evo­lu­tion” in the off­set needs to be con­sid­ered and accounted for in the design stage and there­fore the finan­cial and com­mer­cial fac­tors of the value of the off­sets pro­gres­sively can be con­sid­ered. This then makes the off­set finan­cially and com­mer­cially viable over­com­ing some of the prob­lems of the per­ma­nency of off­sets and the finan­cial sus­tain­abil­ity of these areas.

Seek­ing a com­pre­hen­sive and prag­matic approach to bio­di­ver­sity offsets

I apol­o­gise if this is offen­sive or I have not expressed myself clearly — it is a dif­fi­cult area try­ing to deliver a com­mer­cial out­come within and envi­ron­men­tal area within leg­isla­tive and pol­icy restric­tions. BUT, it can be done if we address the issue from a com­pre­hen­sive and prag­matic approach address­ing the envi­ron­ment, finan­cial and legal perspective.


The theory-practice gap in biodiversity offsets — a comment by Alan Key — 1 Comment

  1. Alan, you have asked for my thoughts on this — I do appre­ci­ate your con­tri­bu­tion which is seem­ingly based on exten­sive expe­ri­ence and there­fore very much true in the cases you have seen.

    How­ever, from an ide­al­is­tic point of view which I still kind of can’t let go, it is sad to acknowl­edge that “com­mer­cial sense” might be an impor­tant shap­ing fac­tor of a bio­di­ver­sity off­set. From a nature con­ser­va­tion point of view this is actu­ally kind of absurd: the restora­tion activ­i­ties intended to coun­ter­bal­ance the neg­a­tive out­comes from com­mer­cial activ­i­ties should them­selves make com­mer­cial sense — where’s the ben­e­fit to the destroyed nature?

    But of course, as an off­set provider you need to take a prag­matic way as you say and con­sider what is work­ing. And we have seen many off­sets fail. So to me, any rea­son­ing that helps to deliver viable bio­di­ver­sity off­sets (that deliver an addi­tional ben­e­fit for nature) is a good one.

    The evo­lu­tion of bio­di­ver­sity off­sets over time is a cru­cial point which has both a pos­i­tive (that you have pointed to) and a neg­a­tive side of the coin: off­sets can evolve over time, but they also need to be secured in per­pe­tu­ity and also not sold sev­eral times for the same efforts.

    I do strongly agree with you that such a com­plex and tricky (some would even call it dan­ger­ous) issue as bio­di­ver­sity off­sets is highly context-dependent and needs very spe­cific and maybe also prag­matic ways to approach it. Yet, we should at any cost pre­vent that prag­matic means hav­ing the most sim­ple at the least cost with the lousi­est out­come for nature!

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