Seeking evidence to inform the biodiversity offsets policy debate

This is Part 1 of a series of posts outlining the research journey of my PhD so far. 

Biodiversity offsetting is rather controversial

When I first embarked on my PhD research, my main interest was in trying to learn about what outcomes had been delivered by biodiversity offsetting policies. There were a few reasons for this. First, I knew that biodiversity offsetting was becoming increasingly popular. At last estimate, 45 countries have some form of offsetting or ‘no net loss’ policy, and another 27 countries have policies in development (Madsen et al. 2011). I’d also noticed that offsetting was being proposed as a mechanism for expanding the network of protected areas in my home state of Queensland – a policy which I’d expressed some concerns about at the time. But probably the main motivation for my research question came from the often polarized discourse that surrounds the use of biodiversity offsetting.

For example, critics of the policy have suggested that offsetting is essentially a “license to trash” and “will unleash a new spirit of destruction on the land“, enabling development to go ahead on the promise that the environmental impacts will be compensated for somewhere else, in some time in the future. This is a view held a number of environmental groups, and is often put forward in the popular media and in the academic literature (Walker et al. 2009).

On the other hand, supporters of biodiversity offsetting have a tendency to promote a fairly optimistic view, by suggesting that offsetting could provide “win-wins” whereby the economy can grow while simultaneously conserving biodiversity. Consider this quote from the UK Ecosystem Services Taskforce:

“…[biodiversity offsetting] could revolutionise conservation in England by delivering restoration, creation and long term management on in excess of 300,000 hectares of habitat over 20 years”.

This optimism can also be reflected in the academic literature, though usually more cautiously. There have been suggestions that how offsets could enable the expansion of protected areas (particularly in developing countries), and provide a new funding stream for a range of conservation measures (see this new paper by Norton and Warburton).

Can we use evidence from past policy implementation to inform future policy development?

I think that much of the discussion around biodiversity offsetting, and indeed the use of economic or market based instruments in biodiversity conservation more generally, falls into two fairly divergent narratives. One is primarily concerned by opportunities; whereby offsets could provide more efficient and effective policy outcomes than traditional regulation, deliver “win-win” outcomes for conservation and the economy, and may deliver social and cultural co-benefits. The other is chiefly concerned with risks; that offset calculations will fail to capture all the values we care about, that offsets are merely “symbolic policies”, and more general ethical concerns over the commodification of nature.

The problem with having a policy debate which focuses on such divergent and often irreconcilable views, is that it provides no clear path forward in a political environment where offset policy is, and has been for some time, the policy of choice for democratically elected governments. Given this reality, how does one pragmatically move forward?

This is why I was interested in examining the evidence. As Bottril and Pressey (2012) have said:

“…evaluation can cut through and resolve data-free debates about the relative merits of different approaches”

I knew that this wasn’t exactly going to be an easy task (it’s a PhD after all!). That said, I knew that wetland banking and species banking had been in place in the United States for around 30 and 20 years, respectively. There have been several evaluations of the success of wetland banking, but no such study for the species banking program. Germany’s impact mitigation regulation has been in place since 1976. In Australia, state-based offset programs such as BioBanking in New South Wales and Bushbroker in Victoria have been in operation since mid-late 2000’s, and had occurred informally at the Federal level for close to 15 years up until the introduction of a formal policy in 2012. Given this history of policy implementation, I thought that gathering the evidence and gaining an understanding of policy impact (even with the help of some nifty quasi-experimental evaluation designs) would be possible.

As I looked further into the issues, however, I learned that answering my research question might not be so feasible after all (or, indeed, the most interesting question to ask).

In the next post, I’ll explore some of the different approaches and methodological options available for evaluating the impact of environmental policies.

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