Archive for the ‘Biodiversity offsets’ Category

Sharing nature’s bounty or managing the services provided by natural capital?

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

In an article in the Guardian, a UK newspaper, George Monbiot, takes a hit on ecosystem services and natural capital.

He finds the current shift in vocabulary very worrying:

  • Nature has become natural capital
  • Natural processes have become ecosystem services, as they exist only to serve us.
  • Ecosystems (hills, forests, river catchments, etc.) are now green infrastructure
  • Biodiversity and habitats are now asset classes within an ecosystem market
  • He basically argues that all the hype around these new terms and concepts carries with it the privatization of nature. He uses private ownership of land, exemplified by the enclosure of the commons, as an illustration of that privatization process.

    Enclosure Act for Shifnal, 1793

    Land ownership (…) has involved the gradual accumulation of exclusive rights, which were seized from commoners. Payments for ecosystem services extend this encroachment by appointing the landlord as the owner and instigator of the wildlife, the water flow, the carbon cycle, the natural processes that were previously deemed to belong to everyone and no one.

    His message is clearly stated, but it is not new. In fact, this has been a constant worry of all those involved in the growing incorporation of biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services into decisions affecting our environment. This includes both public bodies such as local governments involved in land planning, and private entities such as NGOs looking for extra funding or businesses trying to manage their dependency or impacts on natural resources and ecological processes.

    His critique focuses on the idea that only by giving a monetary value to the ecosystem services provided by natural capital can we internalize them into our decisions. This is one way forward, but because it assumes that natural capital is thus interchangeable with human or financial capital, it carries the risks outlined by the article. Another approach is to identify which bits of our natural capital are not exchangeable (fungible), and adopt a no net loss approach to their management.

    Managing our natural capital: No Net Loss vs. Monetization

    No net loss of natural capital has been one of the guiding principles of environmental legislation and is generally translated into regulations – such as the European Habitats Directive – than impose a sequence of steps aimed at avoiding, reducing, and offsetting impacts on natural capital.

    Concerning offsets, George Monbiot clearly does not trust environmental authorities to give priority to avoiding over reduction and offsetting of impacts.

    The government warns that these offsets should be used only to compensate for “genuinely unavoidable damage” and “must not become a licence to destroy”. But once the principle is established and the market is functioning, for how long do you reckon that line will hold? Nature, under this system, will become as fungible as everything else.

    He is probably right. Would impacts have been avoided if offsets had not been possible through this pilot scheme? Probably. Is that a good enough reason to give in? Maybe.

    George Monbiot takes the creation of the UK’s Natural Capital Commitee as a symbol of the worrying trend towards a gradual monetization, and thus privatization, of nature and natural processes. Let’s hope we can get a bit of no net loss principles in there…

    Biodiversity offsets: the most promising nature-based opportunity for UK businesses?!

    Monday, July 9th, 2012

    DEFRA (the UK government department responsible for policy and regulations on the environment, food and rural affairs) recently published a report on opportunities for UK business that value and/or protect nature’s services. What does it say?

    Well, the authors identified 12 promising opportunities for UK business to help protect and value nature. First among them is the development of biodiversity offsets and habitat banking. The report suggest they move from their current voluntary status to a mandatory regime.

    Rank 1=: BIODIVERSITY OFFSETS, INCLUDING THROUGH CONSERVATION BANKING – an opportunity to stimulate creation of new companies and new business models for existing companies to provide biodiversity offsets in the UK, by moving from the current voluntary approach to a (soft regulation) mandatory regime.

    The report mentions “soft regulation”, and describes (section 2.1, 1 of the final report) this as:

    regulation or unambiguous policy interpretation by government that clarifies that biodiversity offsets are necessary in defined circumstances, and that establishes a framework for implementation to a particular standard, including through conservation banks.

    The report also mentions the need to :

    support for a brokering system which can provide national, regional and local choice against desired spatial delivery, and can provide transparency and ease of purchase of credits and management of contracts with those providing offset sites, all of which would reduce risk

    To learn more about the business side of the report’s conclusions, dive in and read Attachment 1.

    Grasslands: are they all equivalent?

    Although the report’s overall outlook is positive, it doesn’t mean creating a market for biodiversity offsets will be straightforward. There are still many technical and institutional difficulties to overcome

  • how will the avoidance and reduction steps of the mitigation hierarchy be enforced?
  • how are “credits” constructed?
  • how will their prices be set?
  • how are liabilities defined?
  • who is in charge of controls and sanctions?
  • (…)
  • These questions are not new, but they deserve some detailed thinking, and transparent debates.

    The metrics debate: habitat for middle-aged great blue herons who don’t like shrimp?

    Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

    Whenever discussions on biodiversity offsets get technical, they either focus on legal and cost issues (if you’re paying) or on their underlying ecological reality (if you’re the regulator). Concerning the latter, the question is how you actually assess equivalence between what is lost on the one hand, and what is generated by the offset on the other? So it’s all about what and how you measure to assess those gains and losses – hence the metrics debate.

    In his blog, Morgan Robertson exposes this issue as a “paradox”.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a long time — in fact it seems like everything I’ve ever written boils down to “defining environmental commodities is HARD because ecology is complex and commodities need to be abstract”.

    The paradox is that the metrics must strike a difficult balance between their ecological precision and their ability to foster exchanges on a market for offsets.

    Too much precision (i.e. the habitat for middle-aged great blue herons who don’t like shrimp of Robertson fame since 2004) might better reflect the complexities, or rather the ecological uniqueness, of each location (and time), being assessed. It would however make any market completely useless… At the other extreme, a metric that hardly encompasses these complexities (try wetland area) would make the market highly fungible.

    This paradox should be on the mind of anyone developing metrics or methods for assessing ecological equivalence or credit-debit systems, or using them to actually design an offset scheme. The same applies to any type of ecosystem service market off course (PES or otherwise).

    It is interesting to note that in their pilot schemes for testing habitat banking, France and the United Kingdom have made very different choices in terms of metrics. More on this later…

    No net loss : where are fisheries and farming?

    Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

    At an IUCN event on Red Lists for Europe, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (Member of the European Parliament) talks about nature conservation in Europe.

    He paints quite a bleak picture of the current situation, where solutions are few, and state coffers are empty… So should we follow the money? Maybe there are opportunities to fund nature conservation through the polluter – pays principle, applied to biodiversity (and wilderness?), instead of the citizen – pays principle of many established policies.

    This opportunity is hotly debated at the moment, with many countries working their way towards “no net loss” targets for biodiversity through reinforced obligations for developers to “compensate” their impacts.

    Of course, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy doesn’t fail to mention that those that need to act fastest are the fisheries and farming sectors. They have been given “rights to thrash” and they have used them to a large extent. Shouldn’t they play a part in the application of the polluter-pays principle?

    Where are fisheries and farming in the no-net-loss debate?

    The principle of habitat substitutability

    Monday, November 14th, 2011

    Biodiversity offsets, whether they focus on species (and their habitat requirements), habitat types, ecosystem properties or ecosystem services, are all based on the idea that the elements they target are – to a degree – substitutable: e.g. the breeding habitat of a particular bird species here can be substituted by an “equivalent” habitat somewhere else.

    In an interesting article*, recently in-press in Biodiversity & Conservation, Kate Sherren and her former colleagues at ANU present survey results on how land-holders in rural Australia view the substitutability of different arrangements of trees and woodlands on their properties. This can be very important for aligning conservation policy such as offset schemes with the values and experience of the people they target.

    The rationale for the survey is that at the farm level, substitutions between these elements are made daily, albeit at a small scale: a patch is planted, scattered trees are cut-down etc. These decisions could reveal farmer’s views on their value and their substitutability. The survey found that farmers could be divided into three groups:

  • Farmers, mainly older and less educated, who valued a “tidy” farm but did not care for the specific arrangements of trees and woodlands
  • Farmers who strongly supported the need for a diversity of tree cover arrangements on their land. Because of limited financial or time resources, these views were only rarely translated into concrete action.
  • Farmers who preferred woodlands and connective strips over scattered trees. This group included those that also crop their land using machinery.
  • What can be done with this knowledge? Well, the authors argue that the main risk with widespread offsetting schemes is that tree cover arrangements will homogenize, towards wooded paddocks that are easier to create, maintain, monitor etc. This could have unintended consequences in terms of landscape-level heterogeneity in habitat for species or ecosystem services, especially those related to scattered trees.

    Scattered trees in Australia

    To avoid this homogenization, specific policies could be devised that target the first two types of land-holders, to get them to increase heterogeneity on their land.

    This could be done by allowing land-holders to actively suggest measures in favour of tree cover (and bid for funding) such as “crash grazing”, adding coarse woody debris, weed control or planting of under-storey species… These different measures are conducive to improving the “quality” of existing woodland rather than focusing on area-based measures such as grazing exclusion which could tend to homogenize the landscape and have the major caveat of taking land out of production which could be called into question in the long-term.

    Measures targeting the management of existing trees and woodlands also have drawbacks. The main one is how long-lasting they can be made, and thus how long the binding contracts have to be made. The USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program is one long-lasting program that can provide inspiration for such renewable management-based contracts with land-holders.

    The Conservation Reserve Program - a long-lasting contract-based PES scheme

    Another difficulty with management based measures such as those outlined above is measuring the actual “gain” they generate, so that they can be sized adequately to offset impacts elsewhere. This probably requires a conservative approach – i.e. over-sizing of offsets – as well as further research on baseline trends and short- and long-term effects of these management changes.

    * Sherren K., Yoon H-J., Clayton H. & Schirmer J. (2011): Do Australian graziers have an offset mindset about their farm trees? Biodiversity & Conservation, in press.

    Long-term floodplain meadows cannot realistically be recreated!

    Friday, October 28th, 2011

    Biodiversity offsets are making headlines as a new instrument or tool for biodiversity conservation in the UK. DEFRA defines offsets as actions in favour of biodiversity that are carried-out in compensation for planned impacts (e.g. from development) and provide a measurable outcome. Whenever possible, offsets should target the same biodiversity components (species, habitat types etc.) as those that will be impacted. This raises the question of their “restorability”.

    In a recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Ben Woodcock, Alison McDonald and Richard Pywell of CEH investigate the restorability of long-term floodplain meadows on agricultural land in South-Eastern England. Using an 22 years old restoration experiment, they show that given the current restoration trajectory, it would take over 150 years for the former arable land to have a species composition close to that of long-term floodplain grasslands. Even when being less restrictive in terms of restoration goals, i.e. focusing on the “types” of species (described using their morphological and reproductive characteristics or “traits”), it would take over 70 years. This is slightly more realistic but still a very long term prospect.

    Ecosystems or habitat types for which restoration is a (very) long-term endeavour might fall outside the scope of offset schemes. As the authors say:

    any compensation scheme proclaiming they can replace floodplain meadows lost to development (i.e. gravel extraction) is being wholly unrealistic.

    As well as actually avoiding the destruction of hard or impossible to replace ecosystems and habitat types, these findings raise two issues:

  • can the destruction of these habitats be offset by restoring or enhancing degraded habitats (of the same type). This amounts to exchanging area (for which there will be a net loss) by quality (for which there would be no net loss). Is this acceptable? Another option considered by DEFRA is to use out-of-kind offsets.
  • how can the delays associated with restoration or enhancement of habitat types be taken into account in the design and sizing of biodiversity offsets. DEFRA proposes to use “multipliers” for this but these will probably be very hard to justify, ecologically, as ensuring that offsets lead to no-net-loss of the particular target habitat type.
  • Hopefully, the pilot scheme launched by the UK government will give the opportunity to test these solutions…

    Key issues and solutions for designing and sizing biodiversity offsets

    Friday, October 14th, 2011

    Habitat loss through development is one of the major causes of biodiversity loss. The increasingly common legal requirement to first avoid, then reduce and, if necessary, offset impacts of plans and projects on biodiversity has however not always been appropriately enforced. The blame lies mainly in bad governance such as patchy monitoring or poorly defined liabilities. Biodiversity offsets also suffer from the lack of formal methods for designing and sizing offset requirements.

    In a paper recently published in Biological Conservation, Fabien Quétier (who is involved in this blog) and Sandra Lavorel address this gap by reviewing the different tools, methods and guidelines that have been developed in different regulatory contexts to design and size biodiversity offsets.

    They formulated a typology of approaches that variously combine the methods and guidelines reviewed and then discuss how these relate to the objectives of offset policies, the components of biodiversity and ecosystems to which they apply, and the key issues for ecological equivalence.

    One of the key messages from the paper might be that when gains are not realistic, e.g. because we do not know how to enhance or restore a habitat or ecosystem function (i.e. they are non renewable), then protection of as-yet unprotected habitats or ecosystems is the only realistic offset option.

    This has several consequences, the most notable being that, in effect, using protection as offset means we assign a ratio of acceptable loss to the remaining unprotected habitat or ecosystem. For example, protecting 3 hectares for every unprotected hectare lost actually means that we accept to loose a quarter of the unprotected area. This then means we must think strategically about what we want to do with that quarter… which is then a non renewable resource too!