New literature on biodiversity offsets from our lab in 2016

More was published about biodiversity offsetting in 2016 than ever before, mirroring the increasing influence of this controversial approach to conservation. Here, we highlight some of the key outputs from our research group working on conservation policy with our collaborators from around the world. Most of these are available freely online but if you’d like a copy email me: m.maron@uq.edu.au.

Taming a Wicked Problem: Resolving Controversies in Biodiversity Offsetting

Maron, M., C. D. Ives, H. Kujala, J. W. Bull, F. J. F. Maseyk, S. Bekessy, A. Gordon, J. E. M. Watson, P. E. Lentini, P. Gibbons, H. P. Possingham, R. J. Hobbs, D. A. Keith, B. A. Wintle, and M. C. Evans. 2016. BioScience Biw038

In this review, we sought to summarise the full breadth of challenges faced by biodiversity offsetting – in other words, we asked: why are offsets so polarising? Are they good, bad, or better than nothing? We aimed to provide an accessible overview of the issues being so furiously debated in the world of offsets, including the technical, governance, social and even ethical arguments. Thanks to Joe Bull we were able to include a valuable graphical snapshot of where in the world offsets were happening, and under what guises. We hope this is a valuable go-to paper for those seeking an overview of the messy world of offsetting and a starting point for chasing down key research.

Seeking convergence on the key concepts in ‘no net loss’ policy

Bull, J. W., A. Gordon, J. E. Watson, and M. Maron. 2016.  Journal of Applied Ecology 53:1686-1693.

Offsets, mitigation, compensation…. are all these words interchangeable? And what does ‘no net loss’ actually mean, anyway? Keeping definitions tight and consistent is not just about pedantry; it ensure we are all talking about the same thing, which is pretty important if designing a policy to protect the environment, communicating with the public about the net impacts of a development, or asking developers to spend considerable resources on achieving ‘no net loss’. In this paper, we highlighted a short list of terms that are commonly used in the world of offsets and no net loss, and examine the divergent concepts they have come to be used for. In each case, we suggest a solution to the growing confusion, with reasoning behind each call we have made. My next challenge: to make sure I use the terms consistently myself…

Protecting India’s conservation offsets

Narain, D., and M. Maron. 2016. Science 353:758-758.

Led by Divya Narain, this short article outlines a major risk to the effectiveness of offsets for forest loss in India: lack of additionality. A valid offset must support conservation that would not otherwise happen – you can’t count conservation already planned or under way. But in 2016, the Indian parliament passed laws allowing for funds intended for offsets for forest clearing (compensatory afforestation) to be redirected to a separate afforestation program which forms part of the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. In effect, this double counting will mean 1.2 million hectares of deforestation will remain uncompensated for.

A disaggregated biodiversity offset accounting model to improve estimation of ecological equivalency and no net loss

Maseyk, F. J. F., L. P. Barea, R. T. T. Stephens, H. P. Possingham, G. Dutson, and M. Maron. 2016.  Biological Conservation 204, Part B:322-332.

A couple of years ago, Fleur Maseyk led the development of a (voluntary) offset accounting approach for use in New Zealand. One of the important features of that approach was the way in which the different elements of biodiversity that were the focus of the offsets could be disaggregated, ensuring no net loss outcomes for each element. This paper describes this disaggregated model and its development, and notes that despite being designed to estimate biodiversity offset requirements within the largely voluntary New Zealand context, the approach is equally useful for making transparent the set of assumptions behind any offset calculation.

Biodiversity offsetting in dynamic landscapes: Influence of regulatory context and counterfactual assumptions on achievement of no net loss

Sonter, L., N. Tomsett, D. Wu, and M. Maron. 2016. Biological Conservation.

Offset benefits usually take decades to accrue, and data about individual offset trades are often hard to come by, so ex-ante evaluation of offset policies is one of the main ways we can actually work out whether they are likely to achieve no net loss. In work led by Laura Sonter and Nicole Tomsett, we evaluated the current offset approach being used in Queensland, Australia, with a focus on an endangered habitat type (Brigalow woodland). Offsets for the loss of habitat in Queensland are topical, not least because of vast proposed coal mines (such as Adani’s Carmichael mine). We showed how sensitive offset outcomes were to the rates of deforestation that are considered to be ‘business as usual’ – a major issue when Queensland’s land clearing laws and rates change dramatically from government to government. Even so, in none of the scenarios that we examined did the current policy achieve a no net loss outcome for either vegetation extent or bird habitat quality.

Reef Trust Offsets Calculator: A prototype calculation approach for determining financial liability
for marine biodiversity offsets voluntarily delivered through the Australian Government Department of the Environment (Reef Trust)

Martine Maron, Melissa Walsh, Nicole Shumway and Jon Brodie. 2016. Final Report for project 3.12 of the NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub.

Controversial as it may be, development continues to impact on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area. Because of the nature of the marine and coastal environment, offsets delivered directly by proponents can be particularly challenging. We advised the Australian Government on the development of a tool that could assist potential approval holders and relevant agencies in determining appropriate financial payments as offsets under the Reef Trust. It extended the methodology currently used to calculate terrestrial offsets (which our group led the development of in 2012) to the marine setting. Melissa Walsh is now leading the second phase of this project to develop a working calculator.

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