Study highlights complexity of biodiversity offsets

20th January 2015

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  • Construction ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • Biodiversity ,
  • Natural resources


Katharine Platts

The long-term effectiveness of biodiversity offsetting cannot yet be fully evaluated due to insufficient experience on the ground, according to a new report.

The European commission has a target to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. However, it has admitted that absolute prevention of biodiversity loss is unlikely to be achievable and is therefore aiming to implement a “no net loss” initiative.

This would include a biodiversity offsetting element, which would measure damage to wildlife habitats caused by development and replace them in another location.

The commission asked analysts at consultancy ICF International and the Institute for European Environmental Policy to provide guidance on the design of an offsetting system. Their report examines what metrics should be used to measure the required offsets and how they can be effective in the long term.

The analysts identified at least eight metrics that measure the impact of a development. These include the size of the habitat it damages, what condition the habitat is in, and what species would be affected.

The analysts were unable to identify a metric that could be considered the best and say that each metric should be chosen according to its purpose and location. They say metrics that merely take into account the size of a habitat without assessing its value should be avoided. They also report that sophisticated metric tend to require a larger amount of data, which could have “significant” cost implications.

Ultimately, the metrics selected need to be carefully combined with rules to prevent high-value habitats being replaced with lower value ones, says the report.

Regulatory systems to enforce biodiversity offsetting need to balance ecological rigour with viability, but the report states that establishing detailed rules to be applied across 28 EU member states would be “extremely challenging”. The report instead recommends a policy framework to set out key principles.

It also highlights several gaps and priorities for further research. It found a lack of knowledge about financial management of offsets, for example, with many authorities tasked with designing and implementing offsets not having sufficient expertise to appraise such projects.

The report concludes that the long-term benefits of offsets remain unknown, even in the US and Australia where such systems are most established. “We do not have the experience to know how durable offsets are over the long term, and how well each of the mechanisms performs against its stated aims over the long term…the long term effectiveness of mechanisms available to secure long term conservation benefits cannot yet be fully evaluated,” the report states.

The commission consulted on biodiversity offsetting last year. Results of the consultation show that 44% of respondents did not want to see biodiversity offsetting as part of the commission’s “no net loss” initiative; and 46% opposed a legal EU framework for offsetting.

Forest conservation NGO FERN raised concerns that the commission commissioned a study on how to implement offsetting before knowing the results of its consultation.

Hannah Mowat, forests and climate campaigner at FERN, said: “It was a callous waste of resources in a time of austerity and stokes concerns that attempts to pursue biodiversity offsetting are ideologically driven.”

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