Biodiversity offsetting is off-putting

5 11 2018

Ancient-woodland-has-movedBiodiversity offsets are becoming more popular in Australia and elsewhere as a means to raise money for conservation and restoration while simultaneously promoting economic development (1). However, there are many perverse consequences for biodiversity if they are not set up carefully (1-3).

Biodiversity ‘offsets’ are intended to work in a similar way to carbon offsets1, in that the destruction of a part of an ecosystem (e.g., a native forest or grassland, or a wetland) can be offset by paying to fund the restoration of another, similar ecosystem elsewhere. As such, approval to clear native vegetation usually comes with financial and other conditions.

But there are several problems with biodiversity offsetting, including the inconvenient fact that creating an equivalent ecosystem somewhere takes substantially longer than it does to destroy one somewhere else (e.g., 4). While carbon emitted in one place is essentially the same as that sequestered elsewhere, a forest can take hundreds of years to develop the same biodiversity values and ecological functions it had prior to destruction.

fern shop web_previewIt is therefore generally acknowledged that many biodiversity-offsetting schemes have failed (e.g., 2), and might be doing more long-term harm than good; in fact, many scientists conclude that biodiversity offsetting has little hope of ever working as originally intended (1, 5, 6).

Thus, while biodiversity offsetting might look good on paper, and it can provide funding for restoration projects (which is decidedly attractive to those of us pushing for more restoration), it has to be done following a strict set of rules (7) for it to have any hope of maintaining biodiversity in the long run. The conclusion is that biodiversity offsetting should only be used sparingly, if at all, and only under the strictest set of rules and supervision.

CJA Bradshaw


  1. Maron M, Gordon A, Mackey BG, Possingham HP, Watson JEM (2015) Stop misuse of biodiversity offsets. Nature 523:401-403
  2. Nature Conservation Council of NSW (2016) Paradise Lost – The weakening and widening of NSW biodiversity offsetting schemes, 2005-2016 (Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia)
  3. Bekessy SA, et al. (2010) The biodiversity bank cannot be a lending bank. Conservation Letters 3:151-158
  4. Martin PA, Newton AC, Bullock JM (2013) Carbon pools recover more quickly than plant biodiversity in tropical secondary forests. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280:20132236

  5. Apostolopoulou E, Adams WM (2017) Biodiversity offsetting and conservation: reframing nature to save it. Oryx 51:23-31

  6. Walker S, Brower Ann L, Stephens RTT, Lee William G (2009) Why bartering biodiversity fails. Conservation Letters 2:149-157

  7. Maron M, et al.(2012) Faustian bargains? Restoration realities in the context of biodiversity offset policies. Biological Conservation 155:141-148



2 responses

5 11 2018

Thanks for article. The problem with offsetting is it gives those who only understand money the idea that what is destroyed can be replaced elsewhere. I see this again and again in New Zealand. I meet many folk who think we know enough to restore; we might just know enough to do some small repairs – once the topsoil’s been destroyed (and all the microbiota), the trees killed along with birds and insects – it’s a lot to put back together again.

If the response is not local I’d say it is always a loss.
Janne – your paper is very useful thanks, I’ll read in depth


5 11 2018
Janne Kotiaho

The fact is that today we already have a licence to trash i.e. most of the development will be allowed without any request for offsetting the damage caused for biodiversity. Where this is the case, I would argue we should demand biodiversity offsetting rather that say we should use it sparingly. The problem is not offsetting the damage, the problem is allowing the damage in the first place. Nevertheless, offsets do often fail and thus here are a few items that needs to be considered when offsetting is planned:

Janne Kotiaho

Liked by 1 person

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