New research by Australian scientists and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) published today in Nature warns governments against using biodiversity offsetting to meet existing conservation commitments.

Lead author Associate Professor Martine Maron of The University of Queensland said interest in offsetting had surged over the past decade.

“Planning authorities and developers use biodiversity offsets to compensate for damage to species and habitats caused by human activities, by generating a biodiversity benefit elsewhere,” she said.

“As the approach has gained popularity, governments have increasingly been recognising that industry money generated by offsets could help them achieve national conservation targets to which they had already committed -- such as those under the Convention on Biological Diversity.“

Dr Maron, an ARC Future Fellow in UQ’s School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, said in most cases people were simply failing to think through the implications of using offsets in this way.

“For an offset to be valid, it has to create biodiversity benefits beyond those that would occur anyway,” Dr Maron said.

“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.”

Associate Professor James Watson of UQ and WCS said offsetting, done appropriately, was likely to be a very important way or reducing net harm to biodiversity from development – “but we are not always aware of the risks of using this relatively new tool,” he said.

“Future international agreements should consider the risks of linking protected area growth and adequate management to equivalent biodiversity losses,” he said.

Dr Watson said the research was relevant to all governments with protected area targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity – relating to both management of protected areas and increasing the extent of the protected area estate.

“We argue that buying or managing protected areas using funds from offsets cannot count towards meeting their previously-agreed targets without making the offset invalid,” he said.

Dr Watson holds a joint appointment between UQ’s School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management and WCS and is President of the Society for Conservation Biology.

Dr Watson said governments, business and environmental non-government organisations involved in offset policy development and implementation were also affected.

“Our paper explains the implications of such policies and how they may interact undesirably with protected areas,” he said.

“We conclude that with care, offsets can help to 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.”

The paper co-authors are: Associate Professor Maron, Associate Professor Watson and Professor Hugh Possingham (UQ); Dr Ascelin Gordon (RMIT) and Professor Brendan Mackey (Griffith University).

Media: Dr Martine Maron, E: P: +61 417 110 537; James Watson, E: P: +61 409-185-592; John Delaney, E: P: 1(718) 220-3275