CIE Seminar Series 2015 – No net loss compared to what? Counterfactuals in biodiversity offset policies

Martine MaronSPEAKER: Associate Professor Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow, University of Queensland
DATE: Friday, 19th June 2015
LOCATION: Geelong Campus at Waurn Ponds, room ka5.303
TIME: 12:00 noon
Seminar will also be video linked to the following campuses: Melbourne Campus at Burwood, room LT5 (B3.07); and Warrnambool Campus, room B3.03

ABSTRACT: Biodiversity offset trades usually aim to achieve ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity. But the question remains: no net loss compared to what? Determining whether an offset can compensate for a given impact requires assumptions about the counterfactual scenario—what would have happened without the offset—against which the benefit at an offset site can be estimated. In this talk, I’ll cover two important implications of neglecting to think clearly about counterfactuals in biodiversity offsetting.

First, where the counterfactual scenario at an offset site assumes a future trajectory of biodiversity decline, the intended net outcome of the offset trade is maintenance of that declining trajectory. If the rate of decline is implausibly steep, biodiversity offset trades can exacerbate biodiversity decline. I examined counterfactual scenarios used in offset policies across Australia, and compared them with recent estimates of decline in woody vegetation extent. All jurisdictions permitted offset credit generated using averted loss, implying an assumption of background decline which was on average >5 times steeper than recent rates of vegetation loss. I conclude that Australian offset schemes risk exacerbating biodiversity loss. The near-ubiquitous use of declining counterfactuals risks ‘locking in’ biodiversity decline across impact and offset sites, with implications for biodiversity conservation more broadly.

Second, offsets are increasingly being seen as a way to help nations achieve conservation goals, such as their 2010 CBD commitments for increasing and adequately managing protected areas in marine and terrestrial environments. However, using offsets to meet genuine pre-existing commitments results in no additional conservation benefit, thus invalidating either the offset or the pre-existing commitment. Thus, countries with existing commitments to protected area targets can only validly use offsets to help achieve them if they openly—and for acceptable reasons—renege upon their original commitment. This interaction between international agreements around protected areas and offset policy generates perverse incentives, and I suggest ways to manage these to avoid poor conservation outcomes.

BIO: Martine Maron is an Associate Professor of Environmental Management and an ARC Future Fellow at The University of Queensland. Her lab group works on a range of problems in applied ecology and conservation policy.

In addition to her fellowship research on the long-term biodiversity consequences (both intended and unintended) of biodiversity offsetting, Martine has a particular interest in how to manage the aggressive noisy miner to restore woodland bird assemblages.

Her lab group is working on a range of applied ecology problems relating to drivers of landscape-level species richness, resource distribution and persistence of bird species in patchy landscapes, and how climate change will influence the persistence of species through inducing resource crunches.

Follow Martine on Twitter: @martine_maron.

Appointments with guest speaker may be made via Kate Buchanan