A team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), University of Queensland, and a dozen other organizations has developed a new alternative to “biodiversity offsetting” where compensation is provided to achieve an outcome of “no net loss” of biodiversity from development projects.

Publishing in the journal Conservation Letters, the authors say that “target-based ecological compensation” would provide greater certainty and clarity. It would ensure the management of impacts from projects like new mines, roads, or housing estates directly contributes to broader conservation goals.

The new proposed framework would compensate for biodiversity losses in a way that is aligned explicitly with jurisdictional biodiversity targets that are measurable and reflect the desired outcome such as a species population or ecosystem size on which the target focuses. One example of a specific measurable target the authors cite is the French Government’s pledge to support and maintain a population of 500 wolves for the years 2018 to 2023.

In the framework, targets for particular biodiversity features are achieved through one of three pathways: Net Gain, No Net Loss, or (rarely) Managed Net Loss. In the paper, the authors outline how to set the type and amount of ecological compensation that is appropriate for proportionately contributing to the achievement of different targets.

Current biodiversity targets, such as the Aichi Targets created by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are largely non-quantifiable and lack focus on desired outcomes. As parties to the CBD negotiate the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, there are increasing calls for quantifiable science-based targets for the retention and recovery of biodiversity and nature.

Said co-author Hedley Grantham, WCS Director of Conservation Planning: “This framework improves on the current policy situation where there is little overall gain with conservation- dependent species and ecosystems impacted from developments, and that often actually reduce opportunities for their conservation.”

Said co-author Hugo Rainey Director, COMBO Project - Conservation, Impact Mitigation and Biodiversity Offsets in Africa: “Our approach helps governments make decisions on industry and infrastructure planned investments - target-based compensation streamlines development with national biodiversity targets. This will result in better outcomes for wildlife and will contribute to meeting sustainable development goals.”

Said co-author Hugo Costa, COMBO Project Manager of WCS Mozambique: “Aligning the Environmental Impact Assessment policies with the national biodiversity targets is essential if countries realistically want to halt biodiversity loss. This framework allows governments to require developers for their fair contribution to meeting national targets rather than acting on a project by project mindset, which rarely leads to results that are significant for the national strategies.”

The authors caution that ecological compensation should always be an option of last resort, and that in instances where biodiversity features cannot be improved or recreated, ecological compensation is not acceptable and losses should be avoided altogether. However, where residual loses can be reasonable addressed through compensation, the proposed target-based framework provides a pathway toward more transparent and effective outcomes.

This research was conducted by the Compensatory Conservation working group supported by Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP), a collaboration of WCS, The Nature Conservancy, and the national Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).