Happy New Year, with new environmental regulations in France

January 2nd, 2012

At the close of 2011, the French government finally published its new regulations concerning environmental impact assessment and public consultations. It’s a nice Christmas present… and these changes will play a defining role in the new year.

  • Décret n° 2011-2018 du 29 décembre 2011 portant réforme de l’enquête publique relative aux opérations susceptibles d’affecter l’environnement
  • Décret n° 2011-2019 du 29 décembre 2011 portant réforme des études d’impact des projets de travaux, d’ouvrages ou d’aménagements
  • These regulations will be applicable as of June 1st. They are bringing about considerable change in the way biodiversity and ecosystems will be taken into account in development projects and land planning. We will discuss these changes here in the coming weeks.

    TEEB on TED

    December 30th, 2011

    On TED, Pavan Sukhdev – who lead the TEEB initiative – explains why we need to “value nature” in order to manage it sustainably.

    He ends his talk on the suggestion to focus efforts on “green” and “blue” carbon as part of climate change mitigation. Green and blue carbon is the carbon stored in terrestrial and marine ecosystems respectively.

    Pavan Sukhdev tells us that he strongly supports the REDD+ mechanisms, whereby emitting countries fund projects in forested countries that avoid deforestation and/or forest degradation. There is a lot of potential there for synergies between carbon sequestration goals and the continued provision of other ecosystem services (and biodiversity).

    Concerning blue carbon, it is interesting to note how he explains that we, collectively, have made the ethical choice to lose coral reefs through unmitigated climate change. It was probably an implicit choice, but it is quite revealing that Pavan Sukhdev and TEEB recognize that there are critical thresholds of biodiversity and ecosystem service loss. Those thresholds can be ecological (to avoid extinction or complete loss) or social but they certainly define the boundaries of our future life support system. Good debates to be had there…

    Nature films: are broadcasters free riders?

    December 29th, 2011

    Earlier this month, Paul Jepson of Oxford and his colleagues published a short article in Science Magazine advocating that the media should pay for nature conservation… Why?

    Basically, they state that the industry extracts entertainment value from natural ecosystems and wild fauna and flora, but does not contribute to the cost of conserving these assets. Or at least not in an effective and transparent way.

    Today, the media funds nature conservation actions through separate, voluntary initiatives (and the payment of filming fees in some protected areas). Nature conservation projects funded by the media don’t necessarily target the same areas or species used in the films or photography. There is also no mechanism to determine how much funding would adequately reflect the industry’s take. How much is that take anyway?

    A key question is whether producers of wildlife content can afford to internalize the production costs of nature into their products.

    The authors argue that a better mechanism would be to set up a trust fund, with the money coming from broadcasters on the basis of viewing (e.g. per viewer, or DVD sold etc.) and not as a percentage of production costs. Using common-place ratings and sales data to size payments would lower the cost of setting up the scheme. The trust would also come with a international governing body and transparent certification mechanism for establishing payment rates and monitoring payments.

    The authors state that their scheme would ensure that:

  • Films that attract a large audience pay more than those who attract less viewers
  • Costs would be modest, and easy to set-up and monitor using common-place ratings and sales data
  • Sector leaders would have the opportunity to enhance their reputation or brand value
  • Deposits are linked to conservation actions targeting specific areas or species, where entertainment value is sourced
  • Payments are made by end-user broadcasters rather than less wealthy wildlife filming companies
  • Sends out the message that “by watching this, you are paying for conservation”
  • Unfortunately, the paper gives no details as to who would be involved in the governing body. It mentions an “international coalition of mass-membership NGOs, wildlife filmmaker associations, and the IUCN” but do not explain their choice. It is also unclear on what basis the certification process would establish the base rates (e.g. per viewer) for paying into the trust fund. The authors mention the need for “careful pricing” and “fair prices” but do not provide applicable solutions. Rather, they leave that difficult task to the NGOs (again!).

    leading environmental NGOs need to (…) introduce a PES-style mechanism

    Rather surprisingly, the paper has yet to receive the attention of the media outside academic circles. The authors are probably expecting responses. So should you.

    The principle of habitat substitutability

    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!

    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

    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!

    On time-lags and location selection in offsets

    October 10th, 2011

    Ascelin Gordon and his colleagues from Melbourne recently went through an interesting modelling exercise. They modelled the long-term effects, in both space and time, of different offset policies concerning urban development impacts on native grasslands around the city.

    Their modelling explicitly included uncertainties , following the approach described by Langford et al. (2009). These uncertainties were both ecological (edge effects on conservation value, grassland response to management and offsetting, etc.) and political: which offset policy?

    They compared five different offset policies:

  • No change
  • Development without offsets
  • Non strategic offsets (wherever, whenever)
  • Strategic offsets (offsets are located together, in designated areas)
  • Strategic immediate offsets (offsets are effective at the start of simulations, a.k.a. habitat banking)
  • Their conclusions are that offset policies that include spatial and temporal constraints on offsets give the best conservation outcomes. They also point out the obvious: the selection of the baseline is central to any assessment of policy outcomes.

    whether (or when) [policies] achieve the objective of a “net gain” completely depends on the choice of baseline.

    It might be obvious but it is certainly tricky when looking at policies that involve long-term ecological dynamics…

    To find out more, check out their paper in Environmental Modelling & Software*. A pdf can be downloaded here.

    * Gordon A., Langford W.T., Todd J.A., White M.D., Mullerworth D.W. & Bekessy S.A. (in press): Assessing the impacts of biodiversity offset policies. Environmental Modelling & Software, in press.

    New books on the shelves

    September 23rd, 2011

    Several new books on the topic of market-based instruments for nature conservation were recently published (or will soon be). Expect so see reviews here soon.

    The first book is by Royal Gardner, a law specialist, who has worked on wetland mitigation in the USA. Entitled Lawyers, Swamps, and Money: U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics the book provides an in-depth look into the inner workings of the wetland mitigation “industry” and especially its governance. You can take a look on Amazon.

    The second book is by Ece Ozdemioglu of the British consultancy EFTEC. It will provide guidance on ecological equivalency methods that can be applied to biodiversity offsets and payment for ecosystem service schemes. Here is what her personal page on the EFTEC website says:

    Her next book (with Josh Lipton and David Chapman, forthcoming in 2011 by Springer) will be on the use of resource equivalency (including economic valuation) methods for assessing environmental damage and liability and selecting the appropriate compensation measures. This will help implement European Directives of Habitats, Wild Birds and Environmental Liability as well as input to new policy instruments like biodiversity offsetting, payments for ecosystem services and habitat banking.

    According to Open Trolley, the expected publication date is September 29th, with the title “Equivalency Methods for Environmental Liability in the European Union: Assessing Damage and Compensation Under the Environmental Liability Directive”. Most of the contents probably reflect EFTEC’s work as part of the EU funded REMEDE project which provides lots of interesting insights.

    If you haven’t read it yet, you can still have a look at Carroll, Fox and Bayon’s book on conservation and biodiversity banking published by EarthScan.

    Principles, criteria and indicators for biodiversity offsets

    July 10th, 2011

    The Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program (BBOP) has launched a consultative process on several documents it drafted:

  • Guidance on the BBOP standards for biodiversity offsets, under a Principles, Criteria and Indicators (PCI) format
  • Guidance on assessing how an offset actually contributes to No-Net-Loss (NNL)
  • Guidance on assessing which components of biodiversity can and cannot be offset.
  • These are important documents which may become standard best practice, especially for firms operating in countries with no established procedures or official guidance on designing, sizing and implementing offsets. Voluntary offset initiatives by private firms are particularly targeted by BBOP.

    The PCI document give a useful overview of the many requirements of offsets, and thus reveals the various specialized knowledge and know-how required to design or assess them.

    Offsetting is hard and BBOP is providing excellent and timely guidance! Don’t hesitate to contribute!

    A first step towards ecosystem service-based certification in forestry

    July 8th, 2011

    On July 1st, the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies timber products worldwide, acknowledged that forest certification should recognise “social issues and the role of ecosystem services” (motion 1.1.)

    The FSC does not detail how it might go about including these issues in the certification process but it certainly raises the prospects for expanding the proper assessment and monitoring of ecosystem services in production forests worldwide.