Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut

April Reside, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Lesley Silcock, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland

Land clearing is accelerating across eastern Australia, despite our new research providing a clear warning of its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, regional and global climate, and threatened native wildlife.

Policies in place to control land clearing have been wound back across all Australian states, with major consequences for our natural environment.

One of the recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales has been the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. These codes are meant to allow small amounts of “low-risk” clearing, so that landholders save time and money and government can focus on regulating activities that have bigger potential impacts on the environment.

However, substantial areas of native forest are set to be cleared in Queensland under the guise of vegetation “thinning”, which is allowed by these self-assessable codes. How did this happen?

Thin on the ground

Thinning involves the selective removal of native trees and shrubs, and is widely used in the grazing industry to improve pasture quality. It has been argued that thinning returns the environment back to its “natural state” and provides better habitat for native wildlife. However, the science supporting this practice is not as clear-cut as it seems.

Vegetation “thickening” is part of a natural, dynamic ecological cycle. Australia’s climate is highly variable, so vegetation tends to grow more in wetter years and then dies off during drought years. These natural cycles of thickening and thinning can span 50 years or more. In most areas of inland eastern Australia, there is little evidence for ongoing vegetation thickening since pastoral settlement.

Thinning of vegetation using tractors, blades and other machinery interrupts this natural cycle, which can make post-drought recovery of native vegetation more difficult. Loss of tree and shrub cover puts native wildlife at much greater risk from introduced predators like cats, and aggressive, “despotic” native birds. Thinning reduces the diversity of wildlife by favouring a few highly dominant species that prefer open vegetation, and reduces the availability of old trees with hollows.

Many native birds and animals can only survive in vegetation that hasn’t been cleared for at least 30 years. So although vegetation of course grows back after clearing, for native wildlife it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity.

Land clearing by stealth?

Thinning codes in Queensland and New South Wales allow landholders to clear vegetation that has thickened beyond its “natural state”. Yet there is little agreement on what the “natural state” is for many native vegetation communities.

Under the Queensland codes, up to 75% of vegetation in an area can be removed without a permit, and in New South Wales thinning can reduce tree density to a level that is too low to support natural ecosystems.

All of this thinning adds up. Since August 2016, the Queensland government has received self-assessable vegetation clearing code notifications totalling more than 260,000 hectares. These areas include habitat for threatened species, and ecosystems that have already been extensively cleared.

It may be that the actual amount of vegetation cleared under thinning codes is less than the notifications suggest. But we will only know for sure when the next report on land clearing is released, and by then it will be too late.

Getting the balance right

Vegetation policy needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current thinning codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.

Thinning codes should only allow vegetation to be cleared in areas that are not mapped as habitat for threatened species or ecosystems, and not to an extent where only scattered trees are left standing in a landscape. Stronger regulation is still needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, which in Queensland is now the highest in a decade.

Protecting native vegetation on private land reduces soil erosion and soil salinity, improves water quality, regulates climate, and allows Australia’s unique plants and animals to survive. Landholders who preserve native vegetation alongside farming provide essential services to the Australian community, and should be rewarded. We need long-term incentives to allow landholders to profit from protecting vegetation instead of clearing it.

Our research has shown that Australian governments spend billions of dollars trying to achieve the benefits already provided by native vegetation, through programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund, the 20 Million Trees program and Reef Rescue. Yet far more damage is inflicted by under-regulated clearing than is “fixed” by these programs.

The ConversationImagine what could be achieved if we spent that money more effectively.

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Lesley Silcock, Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Science for Saving Species: research of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub

I’ll be speaking at this event next Monday, 17th October at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. You can register your attendance here.

Cutting-edge science that can help shape policy and management decisions and protect Australia’s threatened species will be on show in Canberra on Monday 17 October.

Leading ecological experts from the NESP Threatened Species Recovery Hub will detail their latest research results in a session open to those working in threatened species policy and management.

12.15-2.30pm  SESSION 1

12:15 – Welcome and introduction to NESP Dave Johnson, Department of the Environment and Energy

12:25 – How can we help? The NESP TSR Mission, Research Plan and Future Associate Professor Brendan Wintle, Acting TSR Hub Director, University of Melbourne

12:30 – How many feral cats are there in Australia? Associate Professor Sarah Legge, Australian National University

12:50 – Predators and parasites of endangered hollow nesting birds Professor Rob Heinsohn, Australian National University

1:10 – Better offsets for threatened species Megan Evans, University of Queensland

1:30 – Malleefowl fox baiting adaptive management experiment Dr Darren Southwell, University of Melbourne

1:50 – Bilby monitoring with Martu: bringing together traditional knowledge and conservation science Dr Anja Skroblin, University of Melbourne

2:10 – Monitoring reintroductions at Booderee Dr Natasha Robinson, Australian National University

2.30pm     AFTERNOON TEA

2.50-5pm     SESSION 2

2:50 – Environmental Accounts Professor David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

3:10 – Improving threatened species translocation outcomes through genetic strategies Dr Andrew Weeks, University of Melbourne

3:30 – What value does the community place on threatened-species protection? Professor Dave Pannell, University of Western Australia

3:50 – National effort towards feral cat control Richard Faulkner, RMIT University

4:10 – Red hot red list: Professor Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

4:30 – Response from the Commissioner and open floor discussion Gregory Andrews, Threatened Species Commissioner

5:00pm      CLOSE

The Threatened Species Recovery Hub is supported through funding from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme.

Australia needs better policy to end the alarming increase in land clearing

Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland

Land-clearing laws are being fiercely debated in both Queensland and New South Wales. These two states are responsible for the majority of cleared land in Australia’s recent history.

The latest assessment from Queensland shows that 296,000 hectares of vegetation was cleared in 2014-15. More than a third of this is remnant vegetation that has never been cleared before.

To put this in perspective, around 580,000ha of forest was cleared in Brazil over the same time. While this is twice the area recently cleared in Queensland, it’s worth remembering that the rate of clearing has been much higher in the past, before legislation first came into effect more than a decade ago.

Land-clearing rates were higher before laws were introduced.
Queensland government, Land cover change in Queensland 2014–15, CC BY

In NSW, around 23,000ha of vegetation has been cleared for cropping and pasture since 2010 and 59% of this is “unexplained”: clearing of regrowth vegetation, for routine agricultural management, exempt from legislation, or illegal.

The science is clear about the detrimental effects of land clearing on the climate, native wildlife and soil health. More than 400 international and Australian scientists recently signed a declaration highlighting their concern about the rate of forest loss in Australia. Such a degree of coordination between scientists hasn’t been seen since the original Brigalow Declaration in 2003.

How to address effectively the issue of land clearing remains fiendishly complex. Land clearing is such a political issue in Australia, as any policy changes affect many people in the community.

Recently proposed policy changes in both NSW and Queensland have proved to be contentious. Farmers and environmental groups in NSW have highlighted concerns with Premier Mike Baird’s proposed Biodiversity Bill. Last week, Queensland farmers unhappy with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s proposal to re-strengthen land-clearing laws marched on Parliament House to protest the changes.

Australia has the ability and resources to reduce land clearing, if it chooses. How might we do it?

1. Stop the policy flip-flop

Since the 1970s, state and federal governments have introduced at least 40 regulations, incentive schemes and policy frameworks related to vegetation management. One of the key concerns reported by farmers is the “policy flip-flop”, in which successive governments introduce land-clearing laws that are strong, then relaxed, then strong again.

These frequent policy changes create huge uncertainties for farmers who want to make long-term business decisions. It also means that government resources are almost constantly devoted to designing new policies, rather than ensuring that existing policies are effective.

For land clearing to be controlled over the long term, more resources need to be allocated to encouraging, supporting and enforcing compliance with vegetation laws.

2. We do need regulation

Strict controls on vegetation clearing are often deeply unpopular with landholders. Relying too heavily on regulation can also lead to poor compliance and unnecessary costs. However, the reality is that some form of “top-down” regulation will always be needed to protect native vegetation in the long term. History has shown this to be the case.

Before it introduced land-clearing controls in the 1980s, the South Australian government provided landholders with financial incentives to conserve native vegetation. Unfortunately, clearing did not decline, as the scheme attracted only landholders who had already planned not to clear their vegetation.

A combination of regulation and long-term financial incentives is needed. Unfortunately, most incentive schemes are small compared to the value of farming, and are usually short-term – such as the five-year package announced as part of the NSW Biodiversity Bill.

3. Put a price on carbon

Encouraging long-term protection of native vegetation requires a market signal, and a carbon price would do this. The federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund doesn’t provide bang for buck, and there’s evidence it is being used to conserve vegetation that would never have been cleared anyway.

Increased clearing in Queensland may have effectively cancelled out the carbon emissions saved under the Direct Action plan.

We know it is possible for carbon farming to be a win-win for the climate and wildlife. Many parts of Australia need only a moderate carbon price to make restoring and conserving native vegetation a profitable business enterprise. Long-term policy certainty and a consistent message from federal and state governments are needed.

4. Self-regulation where appropriate

Over the past decade, there has been trend towards self-regulation of vegetation management. For low-risk activities, it makes sense for landholders to be able to manage vegetation by simply notifying the government, rather than applying for a permit. This reduces costs for the landholder, and frees up government resources to monitor for compliance and regulate high-risk clearing (where the proposed area to be cleared is large, or may impact threatened species habitat).

Self-assessable vegetation clearing codes been introduced in New South Wales and Queensland, but have been criticised for enabling broad-scale clearing. Clearly, more work is needed here to get the balance right between managing environmental risks and minimising regulation costs.

5. Rebuilding trust

The debate over land clearing in Australia is so heated and highly polarised that it can be difficult to see a path forward. There appears to be very little trust between some landholders and state governments, leading in some cases to tragic consequences.

Providing some long-term policy certainty and consistency between federal and state government messages will go a long way in helping to rebuild mutual trust. A price on carbon would allow landholders to generate income from sequestering carbon alongside farm businesses.

Reducing regulation in circumstances where the environmental risks are low while ensuring resources are devoted to supporting compliance can reduce costs for both landholders and governments without jeopardising the environment.

Australia needs to get land-clearing policy right, and soon. While the debate rages on, more vegetation is lost – and ultimately we all lose.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Queensland farmers protest proposed changes to tree clearing laws


I was on Radio National this morning, talking about deforestation in Australia. You can listen here (mp3):

The battle over land clearing in Queensland comes to Brisbane today, when hundreds of farmers will march through the state capital to Parliament House.

They’re protesting against the Palaszczuk Government’s controversial move to tighten tree clearing laws, which were relaxed by the previous LNP government.

Queensland moves to control land clearing: other states need to follow

This article was originally published in The Conversation, and features my new paper published in Pacific Conservation Biology

Queensland’s land clearing has yet again become a national issue. After laws were relaxed under the Liberal-National State government in 2013, land clearing rates tripled, undermining efforts to conserve wildlife and reduce carbon emissions.

Now the current Labor state government wants to re-tighten the laws. The revised legislation is expected to be debated after June 30.

Land clearing is a highly contentious and polarising issue in Queensland.Scientists and environmental groups have voiced concerns about the dramatic increase in land clearing. But some rural landholders are reportedly worried about the prospect of re-tightened regulations and their possible impact on property values and business certainty.

So, what does the big picture suggest?

Then and now

Since the 1980s, all Australian states and territories have introduced laws to protect native vegetation, in response to rising public concern about land degradation, salinity, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.

The most significant policy reforms have been in Queensland – where the vast majority of land clearing in Australia has occurred over the past four decades – as I show in a new paper published in Pacific Conservation Biology.

Total forest loss due to human activity from 1972 – 2014. Data is sourced from the National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS), Australian Department of the Environment (2015). Image: Evans (2016)

Changes to land clearing laws in 2007 were heralded as the end of broad-scale clearing in Queensland. Clearing of remnant (old-growth) forest was now restricted on freehold land, all remaining clearing permits (issued under a ballot) expired, and A$150 million of compensation was provided to landholders. Further amendments in 2009 placed protections on “high value” (more than 20 years old) regrowth forest.

Fast forward to 2012, and Premier Campbell Newman was elected on a promise to keep Queensland’s land clearing laws in place. Soon afterwards though, Natural Resources Minister Andrew Cripps announced the Government would “take an axe” to tree-clearing laws.*

The 2013 amendments:

  • removed protections on “high value” regrowth forest
  • allowed landholders to self-assess clearing for activities such as fodder harvesting and vegetation thinning
  • allowed clearing of remnant forest for “high value agriculture”
  • changed the onus of proof so that the Queensland government had to prove that land clearing laws had been violated.

The current Labor Queensland Government intends to reverse most of the 2013 amendments to vegetation clearing laws, as well as extending protections on regrowth forest to three additional catchments, to reduce runoff onto Great Barrier Reef.

The laws will also be retrospective, in an effort to prevent panic clearingbefore the changes come in.

How does Queensland compare?

Queensland is not alone in its recent changes to vegetation protection laws.

New South Wales also introduced self-assessment for “low risk” clearing in 2013, and promised to repeal the Native Vegetation Act and replace it with a new Biodiversity Conservation Act. An independent review recommended that these changes occur, but environmental groups remain opposed.

Victoria’s vegetation laws were also changed in 2013, including the removal of the “net gain” target in vegetation extent and quality that had been in place since 2003. The current Labor Victorian government is now undertaking another review of the state’s regulations.

Laws have also been relaxed in Western Australia, where landholders may now clear up to 5 hectare per year on individual properties without requiring a permit (an increase from 1 ha per year).

From state to self-regulation

Within ten years of looked like the end of broad-scale land clearing in Australia, most state vegetation laws across the country have been relaxed.

Government regulation of native vegetation is generally unpopular with landholders , and so maintaining these policies has proven to be politically unpalatable. At this stage, only Queensland is looking to re-strengthen land clearing laws – and even so, self-assessment for some clearing activities will remain.

What does this all mean for native vegetation in Australia? This is actually a difficult question to answer.

Many factors influence land clearing: rainfall, the price of key agricultural commodities, and the amount of land available to clear. This complexity means it’s difficult to know what impact (if any) changes in policy has on the rate of land clearing.

Trends in national-scale deforestation and key macroeconomic variables. Plots are total deforestation versus: a) Year, b) Extent of primary forest remaining, c) Log-transformed total rainfall, d) Gross domestic product per capita (current USD) , e) Agriculture, value added (% total GDP) f) Farmer’s terms of trade. Image: Evans (2016)

It’s quite clear that the relaxation of Queensland’s clearing laws was followed by a sharp increase in vegetation clearing, but it’s not yet apparent whether this has happened in other states.

A big issue is a lack of reliable data. There’s no consistent reporting of vegetation clearing across Australia, and some states like New South Wales only publish information on the amount of clearing permitted by regulation.

As reported last week, total vegetation clearing in New South Wale is much higher than official data shows as most clearing is exempt from regulation, or illegal.

Better policy needed

If we’re serious about protecting Australia’s native vegetation for the sake of soil health, biodiversity and the climate, we need to use all the tools we have available to achieve this goal.

Using a mixture of government regulation, self-regulation and genuine economic incentives, such as carbon farming, is the best approach.

But no matter which policies we use, they all need to be monitored and evaluated to be effective. Otherwise, we have no idea whether all the time and money devoted to designing and implementing new policies has been worthwhile.

The inconsistency between the Federal government’s Direct Action policy, and the relaxation of State restrictions on vegetation clearing is a big problem. Landholders need a clear and consistent message from all levels of government if they are to adapt and make long term business decisions.

Interestingly, around 75% of the recent clearing in Queensland has occurred in the Brigalow Belt and Mulga – areas where we’ve found that carbon farming could be more profitable than cattle grazing.

If only the price, and the policies, were right.

*This sentence was amended on May 10 2016 to clarify that land clearing laws were originally to be maintained.

The legal and institutional dimensions of biodiversity offsetting

This is Part 5 of a series of posts outlining the research journey of my PhD so far. Read the previous entries: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

Over two days in January 2015, fifteen academics and professionals from law, economics, business, ecology and policy came together to discuss biodiversity offsetting – but with a multi-disciplinary twist.  Held at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, and organised by Megan Evans, Stuart Whitten, Andrew Macintosh and Martine Maron, the overall goal of the workshop was to look at biodiversity offsetting from a range of different perspectives, and to try and understand how such policies can effectively deliver positive environmental outcomes.

Biodiversity offsetting is a highly topical and increasingly popular approach used to compensate for impacts on species and ecosystems as a result of development, and is the subject of a large and growing body of scientific research.  There has been substantial work in developing offset metrics which can accurately measure biodiversity losses and gains over time, as well as discussion around the ecological limits of offsetting.  However, there has been comparatively less attention paid to how the policy system as a whole influences the possible environmental outcomes from biodiversity offsetting.

For instance, what are the roles and responsibilities of key organisations involved in offsetting, how do these organisations interact, and do they have sufficient capacity and ‘fit for purpose’ information to implement and oversee offset policy? What institutional settings are in place to govern the offsetting process? What legal mechanisms are used to transfer and enforce offset obligations between different participants? Are there appropriately aligned incentives to stimulate market participation and to facilitate monitoring and compliance?

By considering these institutional and organisational dimensions of biodiversity offset markets, in addition to key criteria for the effective implementation of environmental policy, workshop participants were able to identify a range of issues arising from the offset implementation process which may be impeding positive outcomes for biodiversity.

Good design doesn’t automatically translate to good on-ground outcomes

Although it was recognised and agreed that the recently updated Australian environmental offsets policy guide had introduced scientific rigor and improved transparency in the calculation of offset requirements, this has not necessarily lead to improvements in other aspects of policy implementation. For example, it was pointed out that translating the offset requirements calculated at the design phase into on-ground implementation is still a rather complex process.

A better understanding by policy-makers of the challenges that on-ground offset providers can face (such as availability of native seed stock), and the unique insights these practitioners can bring to the table (such as knowledge of new management and restoration techniques), could help to ensure that the biodiversity outcomes that are promised by offset proposals are actually achieved on the ground.

Policy uncertainty leads to business uncertainty, which leads to uncertain biodiversity outcomes

Biodiversity offsetting is a rapidly evolving policy space, which means that government policies have been through a number of changes in a relatively short space of time. For example, the Queensland Government introduced on average, one new offset policy per year over the 2000’s. Although the introduction of new policies may often be motivated by a need to provide more guidance or to better address the problem at hand, the downside is that it continually shifts the goal-posts for businesses who need to comply with such policies when developing environmental impact statements and submitting development applications.

Securing an offset site which can provide adequate compensation for the impacts of a development is a long, complex and expensive process, requiring negotiation with many parties including landholders, banks, brokers, Federal, State and local governments and third-party offset providers. If a policy is changed or re-interpreted during this process, investments of what can sometimes be millions of dollars tied to an offset project may be at risk. This uncertainty can have a very real impact on what outcomes can be delivered by an offset policy.

People, culture and relationships are crucial parts of the process

Although the main concern about biodiversity offsetting is of course the species and ecosystems being impacted and compensated for, ultimately it is the individuals and organisations who implement the policy that can influence its effectiveness. For example, if information about what the offset requirements are, what legal mechanisms are needed to secure the offset, or what actions are required for regulatory compliance are not adequately communicated among all participants, this can result in offsets that provide less enduring and effective outcomes for biodiversity.  Recognising that the motivations and objectives of individuals and organisations involved in offsetting will often differ, is crucial. Identifying where there may be opportunities to better align policy processes in a way that is mutually beneficial could help to improve outcomes for biodiversity through offsetting in the long term.

More changes are on the horizon, though not necessarily for the better

Biodiversity offsetting is certainly an active policy space in Australia. In addition to the recent Senate inquiry, there have been new policies introduced in Queensland and New South Wales during 2014. Concerns have been raised about the relaxation of key policy principles in these new policies, such as the ‘like-for-like’ principle (ensuring an offset is the same species or ecosystem type as the one impacted), permitting mine rehabilitation (which is already required under the NSW Mining Act) to be counted as an offset, and allowing up to 100% of an offset to be ‘indirect’ (which is really a change in the definition of the term ‘offset’).  Although these changes have likely been driven by politics rather than science, this is simply a reality in the making of public policy – which results from an interaction between different values, interests and resources. The role which researchers can take in this process is to do provide the best possible science, while remaining cognisant of this broader contestation of ideas.

This workshop was generously supported by the CSIRO and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.

Assisted regeneration could make farmers money

Here is the media release for my recent paper in Environmental Science & Policy:

Southwood remnant. Image: Dr John Dwyer.
Southwood remnant. Image: Dr John Dwyer.

Researchers have found that assisting vegetation to grow back naturally could be a far more profitable way for farmers to lock in carbon than the more commonly considered method of planting trees and shrubs.

PhD researcher Megan Evans from The Australian National University (ANU) said farmers could earn carbon credits for little to no cost, while also helping Australia curb carbon emissions, attributed to global warming.

Carbon farming provides landholders an opportunity to earn carbon credits by restoring or establishing vegetation on their properties.

“Landholders could have the opportunity to make money through the carbon market or through the Emissions Reduction Fund in Australia,” Ms Evans said.

“A lot of these landscapes are also important areas for threatened species and ecosystems.”

The research is the first to examine the economic value of assisted natural regeneration of vegetation in relation to carbon farming.

Ms Evans said the assisted natural regeneration of land would be economically viable for less than half the cost of environmental plantings.

Assisted natural regeneration provided an opportunity to recover these environmental values at a large scale as well as delivering an economic benefit, she said.

“This would not be as possible with the more commonly considered method of planting small trees and shrubs, which has a much higher up-front cost relative to assisted natural regeneration.”

The research considered the economics of carbon farming in Queensland, where 30.6 million hectares of agricultural landscapes may be suitable for carbon farming.

The paper has been published in the latest edition of Environmental Science & Policy.

A framework to analyse the effectiveness of biodiversity offset policy

This is Part 4 of a series of posts outlining the research journey of my PhD so far. 

In this series of blog posts, I’ve introduced the motivation for my research topic, described the general range of approaches used to evaluate environmental policies, and have suggested some reasons as to why evaluation may not happen as often as we’d like it to. In this post, I’ll be outlining how I intend to progress my research into the future.

I began my PhD by asking the question, “What environmental outcomes are being delivered by biodiversity offset policies?”.  As I noted previously, there has been extremely limited evaluation of the effectiveness of biodiversity offsetting, relative to how long such policies have been in place in some parts of the world. Australia has been dabbling in biodiversity offsetting for close to 20 years, and species conservation banking in the United States has been going on since the 1990’s. These are two jurisdictions with highly developed policies, and are often regarded as world leaders in biodiversity offsetting.

And yet, although there has been some analysis of what drives the establishment of conservation banks in the US (Fox and Nino-Murcia, 2005) and the ecological values contained within them (Bunn et al 2014), there has been no analysis of whether these bank/offset sites are adequately compensating for the permitted impacts on species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The recent Senate inquiry in Australia concluded that there is a “…lack of evidence that offsets are effective and actually achieving their intended outcomes”. In contrast, there have been a number of evaluations of the US wetland mitigation banking policy over time (e.g , Brown and Lant 1999, Reiss et al. 2007) though none of them provide for particularly happy reading

Despite this clear lack of understanding of policy effectiveness in Australia and the US, and the limited to mixed success seen with wetland banking in the US, we’re still seeing a surge in popularity in biodiversity offsetting internationally. This is concerning from a policy perspective, whereby the lessons learned by the US and Australia over time are not being transferred to countries developing policies of their own, so there could be a lot of unnecessary “reinventing the wheel” going on. But the stakes are particularly high with biodiversity offsetting, which essentially permits the loss of biodiversity in a location now, in exchange for compensation somehow, somewhere, sometime in the future. The risk of maintaining and even exacerbating biodiversity loss (Gordon et al. 2015) is very real.

In finding that answering the “What…?” this question was actually going to be extremely difficult, I asked “Why is there a lack of information on what outcomes are being delivered by biodiversity offset policies?”. Perhaps there are particular issues acting as barriers to evaluation. If so, what could these be?

Picture2Indeed, if we step back a bit, and consider thatmonitoring and evaluation is a key component of good public policy (Dovers and Hussey, 2013), then this could provide a useful framework to identify a range of issues which ultimately influence what environmental outcomes are delivered by biodiversity offsetting policy.

If we think about what makes a “good” biodiversity offset policy, there has been a lot of discussion in the literature about what should be the some of the key policy principles (e.g, no-net-loss, like-for-like). This research speaks to how the policy is framed and what the goals could be (item 2 in the figure), but not necessarily how it should be implemented, monitored or evaluated.

There’s also been a lot of research which has been focused on developing and refining offset metrics, which can most accurately measure how much and what kind of biodiversity values are to be lost from an impact site, and what would be an adequate compensation at the offset site. Considering things like time lags, uncertainty and the specific biodiversity features being impacted is really important (see our recent paper on the EPBC Act offset metric, and a related blog post).

Although the availability of credible and scientifically robust offset metrics is obviously an essential component of formulating biodiversity offset policy, there are a range of issues (which are often non-ecological) which influence the environmental outcomes likely to arise from offset policy. We can conceptualise these issues as falling into one of three domains – measurement, institutional and organizational.

The measurement domain is concerned with how to appropriately measure biodiversity impacts and calculate the resulting offset requirements. Biodiversity is far more difficult to measure, and can be far more value-laden than other environmental commodities such as carbon dioxide or water (yes, I realise that biodiversity is not necessarily a commodity). We need to know how to measure biodiversity in order to calculate a currency or unit of trade that can then be considered in a regulatory environment or traded in a market.

We also need to be mindful that there is a fundamental trade-off between the complexity of such a currency, and the size of an environmental market. If you have a currency that requires considerable time and effort to calculate, high transaction costs will discourage market participation. If you have a really simple currency (e.g hectares), you will miss a lot of ecological detail (e.g habitat quality, occupancy, time lags), but transaction costs will be lower. Salzman and Ruhl (2000) described this trade-off in market size and currency as “fat and sloppy versus thin and bland”.

Picture3If biodiversity is impacted through a development, there is often a regulatory obligation to compensate for that impact. The institutional domain is concerned with how those obligations are legally codified, what mechanisms are in place to transfer obligations between different individuals or organizations, and how these obligations can be enforced. If there is limited oversight of offset trades due to a lack of capacity in enforcement, then we can’t be sure whether the offsets promised as part of a development approval ever actually occur. Similarly, if the legal mechanism used to secure an offset site into the future can easily be overridden (such as nature refuge agreements in Queensland, Adams and Moon 2013), then we’re far less likely to deliver positive environmental outcomes from offset policies.

Finally, the organizational domain considers the organizations that sit within a policy environment, and how those organizations interact and behave as mediated by institutions. For example, the transaction costs incurred as a result of complying with a policy or participating in a market will influence how an organization behaves (see Coggan et al 2013). High transaction costs will discourage market participation, and could provide a reason for lobbying the government to reduce policy complexity to ease regulatory burden.  Who bears the risk in the event of an offset failing to deliver its agreed outcome will also have a major influence in whether and how an outcome is delivered.

So, there’s a little insight into my brain and how I plan to frame the next stages of my research. I don’t have any answers yet (obviously), but in the next post I’ll describe the outcomes of a recent workshop I organized at the ANU which aimed to untangle some of these ‘non-ecological’ issues which may be influencing how effectively biodiversity offset policy can be implemented.