My SHE XIX talk – now on SlideShare

I recently gave a talk at the  XIX International Conference of the Society for Human Ecology, 8th February 2013 – held at the Fenner School, ANU.

Here I outline my approach for evaluating the impact of a) legislation restricting vegetation removal, and b) biodiversity offset policies on achieving a ‘no net loss’ in vegetation across Australia, as well as some (very!) preliminary findings.

If you want to the additional commentary that came with the slides, read on:

1. We know that pretty much all indicators of biodiversity are in decline – whether you consider the Red List Index to the right, or deforestation for example. In fact the latest data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation indicates that the global rate of deforestation is increasing – climbing from 2.7 million ha/yr between 1990 and 2000 to 6.3 million ha/yr between 2000 and 2005. And obviously this is crucial since habitat loss is a primary driver of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

2. I’m starting my PhD this year at the ANU, and I’m broadly interested in environmental policy and economics. When we think about environmental policy, one of the first things many think of are interventions funded by the public – such as protected areas (NRS) – which admittedly conservation planners have only just started to realise there’s more to conservation than national parks – and also the funding of conservation interventions on private land through commitments such as the NHT and Caring for Country.

3. Another common way to try to protect the environment is to regulate – by placing restrictions on human activities, often on private land – for example laws regulating impacts upon threatened species and ecological communities, as well as restrictions on native vegetation removal. In Australia a key piece of legislation at the national level is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, whereas vegetation restrictions are legislated at the State level.

There is a tendency however to see these regulations are ‘green tape’ – and particularly in Qld, Victoria, NSW and WA these laws are under review and may be relaxed in response to pressure from interest groups. For example, the Qld government has put a hold on all prosecutions under the VMA, and in WA a particular member of parliament has praised this action as “a beacon of light for all states to follow”. Generally speaking, regulation is not a particular popular policy direction.

4. On the other side of the coin, we’re seeing a global trend towards to use of economic or market based environmental policy instruments. These essentially are designed to provide landholders a financial incentive to reduce or eliminate their impact on biodiversity – so this is the carrot to the regulatory stick approach. Market based instruments come in a few different forms – but today I’m going to focus on biodiversity offsets. Essentially these policies place a cap on the damage permitted to biodiversity – and then proponents are able to find the least-cost option to compensate for their impacts which is facilitated through a biodiversity market.

5. The broad goal of biodiversity offsetting is to achieve no net loss or net gain of biodiversity – varies according to policy (most often NNL). Implemented as an alternative, or adjunct, to traditional ‘command and control’ regulation. There’s been rapid growth in uptake: policies exist in 45 countries, and in development in another 27. The global annual market size is $1.8-$2.9 billion.(I should point out that this is an underestimate, since about 80% of existing programs assessed by Ecosystem Marketplace were not transparent enough to estimate their market size!)

In Australia, there are separate biodiversity and vegetation offset policies in almost all states, and late last year the Federal Government released a new policy for matters of national environmental significance. In the recent independent Hawke review of the EPBC Act, it was recommended that the Australian Government should develop a national biodiversity banking (biobanking) system. Given this growth in biodiversity offset markets, it’s really important to ensure they’re well designed, and that their meeting their objectives – that is, NNL of biodiversity.

 6. Now there have been a range of policies implemented over the years – for example, one of the original aims of the National Heritage Trust was to achieve a NNL of vegetation by 2001. Now this goal was clearly not achieved, but since that time, offset markets in NSW and Victoria have been in operation, and tougher legislation restricting vegetation loss has been introduced in NSW and Qld.

7. Evaluation of environmental policy is important – how else will we know if we’ve made wise and effective investment decisions?

8. What factors do we need to consider to determine whether the ‘no net loss’ objective has been achieved? When we’re considering the impact of regulation and offset policies on vegetation loss, we really need to consider the temporal factor – since particularly in Australia, we’ve had different legislations and policies enacted at different times.

One of the key drivers of demand in offset markets is the level of regulation on avoiding impacts in the first place, so these must be considered when determining whether offset policies have achieved NNL.

Bartel (2004) observed that land clearance rates had declined in some states following the enactment of legislation, but they had also fallen in states with little or no regulation. For example, South Australia first enacted legislative restrictions in vegetation clearing in 1985 – but by this stage, over 70% of native vegetation in that state had been removed. So perhaps clearing went down in SA simply because there was little left to clear, rather than the introduction of regulation.
We also need to think about socio-economic drivers (e.g commodity prices), and climatic variables.

9. As you know, evaluation of environmental policy is crucial but rare.
When I looked into the literature, I thought “surely someone else has done this before”.
I know there has been work on:

  • Protected area effectiveness (on deforestation) e.g Gaveau et al. 2009, Andam et al. 2008
  • Effectiveness of protected area management e.g Cook & Hockings 2011
  • Conservation planning e.g Bottrill & Pressey 2012
  • Other conservation interventions e.g Walsh et al. 2012,
  • Native vegetation legislation (qualitative) e.g Bartel (2004)

What I found is probably not that surprising, but it seems there are few, if any studies which have examined the impact of regulation and offset policies on deforestation. There’s a huge literature on understanding and sometimes modelling the drivers of deforestation, but what they basically conclude is that “it’s complex” – they’re a whole range of socio-economic factors that will drive biodiversity loss in different places. This study by Ewers and colleagues (2008) found there was a correlation between soybean prices and deforestation rate in the Amazonian basin – they noted that legislation against clearing was in place over the study period but didn’t explicitly analyse it.

10. Aims of this study…
(slides 10-end are self contained)


So there you have it – the next few months will see me busily developing models to hopefully explain what impacts regulation and offset policies have (at a very broad scale) on biodiversity (specifically vegetation) in Australia. Watch this space!

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