Can We Really Restore Or Protect Natural Habitats To Offset Those We Destroy?

Can We Really Restore Or Protect Natural Habitats To Offset Those We Destroy? YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / shutterstock

In the forests of northern Sweden, a major train line cuts through land originally protected for migratory birds – so new seasonal wetlands have been established for the birds nearby. In southern Uganda, a huge hydropower dam has flooded swathes of tropical forest – so degraded forests nearby have been restored and the lands they sit on protected. On the remote, wild shores of the Caspian Sea, a strategic port runs the risk of disturbing threatened seals – so entire islands have been created to ensure the mammals have sufficient habitat.

All of these projects are examples of what’s referred to by planners and developers as biodiversity offsets. But does any of this really make a difference and genuinely prevent new infrastructure from harming biodiversity overall?

The idea is simple: to generate biodiversity gains that fully compensate for damage caused by a new development. In theory, it is a last resort, used only after all attempts have been made to avoid, reduce or remedy any loss of wildlife or their habitats.

The goal is to ensure that biodiversity is left no worse off overall than before the development (a so-called “no net loss” policy). In practice, offsets often come in the form of restoring or protecting habitat elsewhere (assuming it would be lost without protection) similar to the one that has been destroyed by the development.

Why you should care

It’s much more than a boring technicality in the planning process: biodiversity offsetting is actually a highly controversial and globally-significant biodiversity conservation practice.

In 2018, one of us (Joseph) led the first ever global assessment of biodiversity offsetting in terms of implementation, and the results were astonishing: research found that the total area managed for conservation under biodiversity offsets was roughly 150,000 square kilometres (with large uncertainty around this number because data is difficult to come by) – an area the size of Bangladesh. It also found that most offsets are established because of legal requirements in national regulation, and that most offsets are offsetting impacts within forest ecoregions – more on the significance of that later.

Can We Really Restore Or Protect Natural Habitats To Offset Those We Destroy? Forests will be lost to dams like these. Can they really be offset? Lynn Yeh / shutterstock

Even more importantly, however, it appears as if the use of offsets is likely to keep on growing, as the underlying driver of why we supposedly need them – the rapid expansion of human impacts on natural ecosystems – continues to increase. At the latest count, 108 countries now have or are developing policies that make provisions for offsetting.

Whether biodiversity offsets work

So, given that offsetting is emerging as a key tool for mitigating the impacts of increasing human pressures on ecosystems, what is the evidence that they actually work?

To address this question, we recently reviewed with colleagues the actual real-world outcomes of offsetting and no net loss policies around the world. We looked at academic studies from ecosystems spanning streams and wetlands in North America, to European tidal mudflats and ponds, to Australian forests. Our results, published in the journal Conservation Letters, were surprising.

We found that around a third of the biodiversity offsets we studied did indeed achieve no net loss. However, these successes occurred in wetland ecosystems like ponds, marshes or streams: we found no evidence that offsets applied in forest systems have successfully achieved no net loss. Recall earlier that two-thirds of all offsets globally were found to be in forest ecosystems. Our study demonstrates that without serious changes in the way offsets are conducted and monitored in these ecologically rich and complex habitats, there is insufficient proof that offsets are enough to achieve no net loss of biodiversity from land clearing.

We also found no evidence that offsets which protect ecosystems that might otherwise have been cleared (so called “avoided loss” offsets) have achieved no net loss. This is likely because the biodiversity “gains” from protection were often overestimated – for example, perhaps the offsets were located in an area that was not really under threat, and so protecting it did not significantly reduce the probability of habitat loss.

Another important finding was that the way that most studies have measured the outcomes of no net loss policies is by assessing changes in the area of habitats under the jurisdiction of these policies.

From an ecological perspective, this is a somewhat rudimentary way of assessing changes in biodiversity, as it does not distinguish between high-quality, biodiverse habitats and biodiversity-poor habitats. Therefore, information on the “true” biodiversity outcomes of no net loss policies is still in short supply.

The future of no net loss

Returning to our railway in Sweden, our dam in Uganda and our port in Kazakhstan, two things are immediately clear. First, without naming names, the ecological effectiveness of no net loss policies can be highly variable. Second, many developments are crucial to people and their well-being, but come at a cost to nature that must be managed somehow given ongoing global biodiversity declines.

In the face of the rapid global increase in human impacts on natural systems, it is essential that we find a way to mitigate the biodiversity losses. With constant adaptive improvements in line with the best science, biodiversity offsets may have an important role to play – but we need to accept that there are significant limits to what offsetting can achieve.

About The Author

Sophus zu Ermgassen, PhD Researcher, Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent and Joseph William Bull, Lecturer in Conservation Science, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you,, and at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.



follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email



Hydrogen Fuels Rockets, But What About Power For Daily Life?
Hydrogen Fuels Rockets, But What About Power For Daily Life?
by Zhenguo Huang
Have you ever watched a space shuttle launch? The fuel used to thrust these enormous structures away from Earth’s…
Fossil Fuel Production Plans Could Push Earth off a Climate Cliff
by The Real News Network
The United Nations is beginning its climate summit in Madrid.
Big Rail Spends More on Denying Climate Change than Big Oil
by The Real News Network
A new study concludes that rail is the industry that's injected the most money into climate change denial propaganda…
Did Scientists Get Climate Change Wrong?
by Sabine Hossenfelder
Interview with Prof Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford.
The New Normal: Climate Change Poses Challenges For Minnesota Farmers
by KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul
Spring brought a deluge of rain in southern Minnesota and it never seemed to stop.
Report: Today's Kids' Health Will Be Imperiled by Climate Change
by VOA News
An international report from researchers at 35 institutions says climate change will threaten the health and quality of…
How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…


Nuclear Power Cannot Rival Renewable Energy
Nuclear Power Cannot Rival Renewable Energy
by Paul Brown
Far from tackling climate change, nuclear power is an expensive distraction whose safety is threatened by wildfires and…
What Does A Healthy Diet Look Like For Me And The Planet?
What Does A Healthy Diet Look Like For Me And The Planet?
by Sean Beer
When it comes to finding a sustainable diet, there are many contradictions. A concept such as food miles can be helpful…
Can An Underwater Soundtrack Really Bring Coral Reefs Back To Life?
Can An Underwater Soundtrack Really Bring Coral Reefs Back To Life?
by Isabelle Côté
Noisy reefs are a very good thing. So good, in fact, that we might be able to use the sound of healthy coral reefs to…
Rising Eco-anxiety Means We Should Address Mental Health Alongside Food Security
by Laxmi Prasad Pant
For over a quarter of a century, United Nations climate negotiations have failed to reach a legally binding treaty.
How To Monitor The Bushfires Raging Across Australia
How To Monitor The Bushfires Raging Across Australia
by Amanda Gearing
As I write this, fires are consuming huge swathes of Australia and conditions are expected to worsen. The situation is…
Ice On Earth’s Rivers Is In Rapid Decline
Ice On Earth’s Rivers Is In Rapid Decline
by InnerSelf Staff
The amount of ice in the Earth’s rivers has declined rapidly over the past three decades, and the trend is likely to…
Climate Watchdog Warns US Fracking Boom Leading to 30% Rise in Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2025
Climate Watchdog Warns US Fracking Boom Leading to 30% Rise in Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2025
by Jessica Corbett
This analysis shows that we're heading in the wrong direction and really need to slow emissions growth from the oil,…
Move by Olympia, Washington to Create Zero Fare Public Transit
Move by Olympia, Washington to Create Zero Fare Public Transit
by Eoin Higgins
City is latest in the country to offer publicly-funded transportation for residents and visitors.