Calculating the benefits of conservation actions

In the new issue of Decision Point magazine, Martine Maron from UQ has penned an article on a collaboration I was involved with between researchers in the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub, and the Australian  Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) staff.

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It’s projected that nearly a billion hectares of terrestrial ecosystems will be lost by 2050 as land is converted into places to grow food and fibre, extract minerals and oil, or house people. Even with a first-rate  protected area network, such losses of habitat mean that extinctions will continue (and likely accelerate). Is there a way to stem such losses in the face of inevitable development?

Environmental offsetting is held up by many as an answer. The approach is often encountered in the context of climate change mitigation. Carbon offsets involve capturing and retaining carbon in terrestrial sinks to compensate for emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Would a similar approach work for biodiversity?

Biodiversity offsetting involves compensating for environmental damage at one location by generating ecologically equivalent gains at another, so that there is ‘no net loss’. Biodiversity offsets are increasingly being used as a regulatory tool to balance the needs of sustainable development and environmental conservation. Unfortunately, such schemes are often prone to failure due to poor design and implementation.

The EPBC Act Offsets Policy

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act is the Australian Government’s key piece of environmental legislation. It regulates impacts on matters of national environmental significance, such as nationally threatened species and world heritage areas as well as actions that involve the Commonwealth. Developed following broad consultation, the recently released EPBC Act environmental offsets  policy (October 2012) sets out the principles for effective offsetting for those protected matters regulated under national environmental law.

The policy was developed with a number of explicit aims, including improving the environmental outcomes that EPBC Act offsets deliver and providing greater certainty and transparency around regulatory decision making. One of the key priorities arising from the policy development process and identified by Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) staff was the development of a transparent offsets guide that would give effect to the policy principles when assessing biodiversity offsets.

A new offsets assessment guide

The final EPBC Act Offsets assessment guide emerged through a collaborative effort between DSEWPaC staff and researchers in the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub. The offsets assessment guide provides a tool for evaluating whether offsets for impacts on nationally threatened species and ecological communities are adequate. It is the first tool in operation in any jurisdiction worldwide that explicitly and transparently accounts for additionality, uncertainty, and time lags in calculating an offset requirement.

Read the rest of the article in Decision Point

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