We conclude that, with care, biodiversity offsets can help reconcile development with conservation - but if they allow governments to renege on their existing commitments by stealth, biodiversity offsets could cause more harm than good.
Biodiversity offsetting relies on the premise that biodiversity lost in one place can be replaced in another, thereby achieving no net loss. In other words if a developer is going to build something that will damage or destroy a habitat of conservation value then they must compensate for that loss elsewhere by creating an ecologically equivalent benefit. Initially, developers undertook the compensatory work themselves, but gradually a credits-based system emerged where a third party with expertise in conservation takes on the work.
Australian scientists now warn governments against using biodiversity offsetting to meet existing conservation commitments, saying that research had shown that interest in offsetting has surged.
As the approach has gained popularity, governments have increasingly been recognising that industry money generated by offsets could help them achieve national conservation goal targets to which they had already committed - such as those under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
For an offset to be valid, it has to create biodiversity benefits beyond those that would occur anyway. So offsets can fund protected areas - but using them to achieve a government's pre-existing commitments is an admission that those commitments were not otherwise going to be met. That might be a reasonable admission for developing nations, but is unlikely to be acceptable from wealthy nations. We recommend that future international conservation agreements explicitly require separate accounting of protected areas created as offsets.