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Environmental offsets under fire

Allowing development of valuable ecosystems in return for protections elsewhere could ruin attempts to protect biodiversity, researchers warned at a major conference in the United Kingdom this week.

Experts have been meeting this week at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to discuss whether and how a goal of ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity worldwide might be achieved, in the first global conference on the topic. But debate at the meeting was dominated by the controversial issue of ‘offsets’.

Offsets involve protecting or improving certain areas as compensation for development in others. They range from planting trees in return for a road through woodland to designating a whole new park in return for a mining concession. But critics say that offsets are now allowing developments that would previously have been refused owing to the environmental damage they cause.

“It’s no secret biodiversity offsets are controversial,” Jonathan Baillie, the director of conservation projects at ZSL told the meeting.

Baillie stressed that offsets should be a “very last resort” for those attempting to conserve biodiversity. He and others at the meeting also insisted that some areas — notably, those listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites — should never be developed in return for offsets.

One example raised repeatedly at the meeting was the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which conservation groups fear is under threat from oil extraction. “For this, there are no offsets,” said Baillie.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, the director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, based in Gland, Switzerland, also warned against trying to offset World Heritage Sites and stressed that good science was essential for successful offsets. Not knowing exactly what you are destroying and what you are saving would undermine existing conservation, she said.

But offsets could be useful, she told the meeting, as important biodiversity and valuable minerals and oil have “the common habit of sharing the same spaces in a landscape”.

Others at the meeting though warned that offsets were already allowing projects to be approved that would otherwise have been rejected on environmental grounds. Hannah Mowat, a campaigner at FERN, a Brussels-based forestry non-governmental organization, said: “It is becoming what we are fearing — a licence to trash.”

She made the analogy to someone having their house bulldozed and then getting a new house built somewhere else. Even if the new house was objectively nicer, one still might not view it as a replacement. In essence, says Mowat, nothing is ‘offsettable’ in nature: “Let’s be honest about that.”

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    Kevin Matthews said:

    Yes, offsets are a flawed approach. Too many places cannot afford to be furthered compromised.

    Instead of offsets, to return economic benefits to needed conservation, let’s work on payments for ecosystem services.

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