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Misusing Biodiversity Offsets Creates The Illusion Of Sustainability

Under no net loss, the loss of one acre of habitat displaced by development is replaced with one acre of the same habitat. In theory, we should end up with the same features and functions as we had before, and have no loss. Unfortunately, no net loss rarely works this way.
Karol Dabbs

There is a new conservation tool making its way through the forests, wetlands and boardrooms of Canada: biodiversity offsets. Biodiversity offsets offer an opportunity to mitigate development impacts to species and habitats that cannot be otherwise avoided. Although offsets are a relatively new tool in Canada, they have been widely used in other parts of the world for over 20 years.

Canada is in the fortunate position of being able to improve on the experiences of other countries, and build on existing efforts such as the principles developed by the Business and Biodiversity Offset Program (BBOP). The BBOP principles are very sound, and an excellent starting point for national, provincial and corporate approaches to biodiversity offsets.

Following the mitigation hierarchy is critical in ensuring that offsets are a last step in a process that should first try to avoid and mitigate any impacts. Limits to offsets require the identification of places, species and habitats that are too rare to lose and may be technically impossible to offset. The concept of additionality (i.e. beyond business as usual) ensures that we are creating conservation outcomes that would not have otherwise occurred without the offset.

Although the BBOP principles provide the foundation for an effective offset program, they fall short on one key standard: no net loss. This is because, despite best intentions, attempts at no net loss have failed, and ultimately result in degraded habitats and declines of species. The consequences of these losses are significant because the development project and offset are often occurring in landscapes that already have experienced significant ecological declines.

Conservationists should be cautious about biodiversity offsets. If misused and misdirected, they have the potential to create an illusion of sustainability. On the other hand, traditional approaches to economic development have failed many ecosystems and the people that rely on them. In a world that desperately needs different conservation outcomes, we need different conservation tools.

The principle of no net loss

Under no net loss, the loss of one acre of habitat displaced by development is replaced with one acre of the same habitat. To be an offset, that acre needs to be new and is usually created or restored. In theory, we should end up with the same features and functions as we had before, and have no loss.

Unfortunately, no net loss rarely works this way. In most cases, the well-meaning objective of no net loss results in the loss of habitat area, quality and function. A review of Canada's no net loss policy for fish habitat in 2006 concluded that 63 per cent of projects resulted in loss of habitat productivity. Similar results are documented from compensatory mitigation under the U.S. Clean Water Act to provide no net loss of wetlands and from no net loss policies in France. The lag time between loss and restoration can also result in biodiversity losses that last for a very long time.

In a country where we have lost large amount of our wetlands, grasslands and forests in the southern regions where Canadians live, no net loss and the incremental continued losses that occur under this policy also just continue a trend of habitat declines. In a twisted conservation outcome, it may even increase this loss because policies to protect key areas could be watered down under the auspices that we can offset any impacts.

Perhaps most importantly, no net loss sends the wrong message about nature. Why, in a country that has a long list of rare species and where habitats such as wetlands and native prairies are reduced to a small fraction of their former extent, would we want to legislate the status quo?

It's a false assumption that small losses in habitat are insignificant. The most endangered habitats in Canada all achieved that status through a slow and steady incremental conversion.

Loss of habitat is obviously a big problem for species, but it's also a problem for people. What margin of error are we willing to accept for nature and the benefits that nature provides to Canadians?

Think net gain

Fortunately the issues with no net loss can be mitigated through net gain. Net gain accepts that there is uncertainty in biodiversity offsets driven by our lack of knowledge and inherent unpredictability in ecological restoration and species responses. Net gain is designed to ensure that nature gains ground, natural capital grows and that the good intentions of biodiversity offsets are met.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), a science-based organization that has dealt in the currency of species and habitats for over 50 years, recently developed biodiversity offset guidelines. NCC has also developed landscape assessment and planning information that allows us to assess the importance of different habitats, and to identify the locations for offsets that will achieve the greatest return for nature. After reviewing the global experience and best practices in biodiversity offsets, NCC has adopted most of the BBOP principles, with the key addition of requiring a significant net gain for nature.

This net gain can come in many different forms. Net gain could be:

  • an increase in area;
  • actions to increase the size of a population;
  • improved functions;
  • creating buffers and linkages between protected areas;
  • an improvement in long-term management; or
  • a guarantee of conservation permanence.

Achieving sustainability through collaboration

When businesses work for a clear and significant net gain for nature through biodiversity offsets targeted at the right places, we can mitigate current impacts to nature and improve the overall amount of healthy habitats. Offsets are challenging and the line between effective conservation and green-washing can be easily crossed, but as a growing, resource-based country, Canada is going to need biodiversity offsets. If done right, they can help us achieve sustainability and improve the health of nature and the natural capital it provides to Canadians.

This blog was written in collaboration with Rob Wilson. It first appeared on the Nature Conservancy of Canada's blog Land Lines.


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