Biodiversity offsets may allow governments to double dip

Compensation paid by developers who damage biodiversity may do more harm than good if it is misused by governments, say researchers.

The team, writing in today’s issue of the journal Nature, argue that there is nothing to stop such ‘biodiversity offset’ funding from being used to carry out conservation work governments have already agreed to pay for.

They are calling on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to “provide clear rules on the use of offsetting so that existing international agreements on the protection of biodiversity are not compromised.”

“Protected areas established through offsets actually need to be flagged and counted separately to other protected areas,” says co-author, Dr Ascelin Gordon, a conservation scientist at RMIT University.

“At the moment there is no mechanism to actually keep them separate, so potentially this leaves the situation open to double dipping.”

It is common these days for individuals or business to compensate their carbon emissions by paying for offsets, in which someone else reduces emissions or plants trees to absorb carbon dioxide.

A similar concept is being applied to biodiversity.

For example, developers who reduce biodiversity by clearing habitat to make way for a mine can compensate for this by paying for biodiversity offsets — the restoration or protection of habitat elsewhere.

The problem, says Gordon, is that sometimes, the land being protected or restored in the form of an offset would have been protected or restored anyway.

For the offset to have made a real difference, it would need to be areas that were at risk of being destroyed, he says.

In some cases it’s difficult to be sure whether this is the case or not, but in others it is very clear, says Gordon.

Existing commitments

Gordon and point to areas already protected as part of a country’s commitment to international agreements.

This includes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which the government already has an obligation to protect under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Heritage Convention.

Still, mining companies and other industries pay millions into a fund that the government uses to protect water quality on the reef from being degraded by development, says Gordon.

Gordon and colleagues argue that the compensation money should only be used to improve water quality, beyond that expected under existing agreements.

“You can’t have it both ways,” says Gordon.

Developing countries

Gordon and colleagues also discuss the case of a copper-mine project in Panama, which will cause the loss of around 5900 hectares of biologically important forest.

To compensate, the company involved will pay for the management of two existing national parks and a new protected area nearby, but these protected lands can also be claimed towards CBD targets.

“Again this is a prime candidate for double dipping,” says Gordon.

Gordon stresses that, whatever happens, offsets should not be oversold as a solution to biodiversity loss.

“They are only designed to mitigate against losses from specific developments,” he says.

“If biodiversity is declining due to historical impacts (as it is in Australia) and a new development comes along, all the offset is designed to do is not make that decline worse.”

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