A research team studying the use of offsets to achieve No Net Loss (NNL) of biodiversity to address negative impacts of development projects found a disturbing trend: we are running out of land for offsetting. The results are published in the journal Nature Communications.

The team looked at offsetting approaches across four case studies in Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mozambique using spatial simulation models to quantify potential net impacts of compensation on biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as carbon storage and sediment retention. They found that no approach typical of current policy achieved NNL of biodiversity, and that two factors limit resolution of this problem: the amount of land available to restore for compensation, and expected unregulated vegetation clearing.

Said lead author Dr. Laura Sonter of the University of Queensland: “The problem is that in many cases, there simply is not enough land to completely offset the huge biodiversity losses expected from expected future development. It is inevitable that development will result in an overall loss of biodiversity, because land availability constraints make no net biodiversity loss impossible to achieve.”

The authors cite an example in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, where twice the amount of land that is currently available for revegetation would be required to compensate for losses from proposed developments in order to achieve no net loss of biodiversity.

The researchers say that compensation also fails to slow regional biodiversity declines because policies regulate only a subset of sectors, and expanding policy scope requires more land than is available for compensation activities. Avoidance of impacts remains essential in achieving NNL goals, particularly once opportunities for compensation are exhausted.

Said co-author Dr. Hugo Costa, COMBO Project Manager of WCS Mozambique: “Moving from theory to practice is key to show how the mitigation hierarchy, and offsets in particular, can contribute to achieve national biodiversity targets. This paper provides insights on which practical problems developers and governments will face when trying to achieve No Net Loss of biodiversity through ecological compensation and discusses implications for compensation policies.”

Professor Martine Maron of the University of Queensland said the findings have implications for reconciling development with crucial global biodiversity conservation goals.

“If offsetting policies are strictly enforced and countries run out of land for these activities, this ought to limit new proposed development projects. The more likely scenario is that if land availability becomes a constraint, then offsetting requirements will be relaxed, enabling development with less compensation, and biodiversity losses will again increase.”

Since development is essential in many instances, the authors recommend governments explicitly account for land availability constraints in their offset policies and making decisions about projects. A key step forward in addressing these challenges is designing offset policies so that they are directly linked to national biodiversity goals.

Said co-author Dr. Hugo Rainey, WCS COMBO Project Director: “WCS is helping Governments across Africa and Asia to improve biodiversity outcomes from development projects. Achieving successful conservation requires early integration of biodiversity priorities into development plans and policies across a range of industry sectors. To support this, we are designing metrics at landscape scale to allow more rapid understanding of the size of offsets requirements.”

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).