Biodiversity offsets

Australia has a large resources sector; is experiencing strong population growth and furthermore, is seeking to increase agricultural production for the growing middle class in Asia. Each of these factors results in the loss of habitat. 

Global populations of native species are now at 48% of 1970 levels according to the Living Planet Index and declines are evident across most taxonomic groups in Australia. Habitat loss remains the primary cause of this decline. 

Biodiversity offsets is one policy mechanism that governments, large companies as well as lenders have embraced, in an attempt to decouple economic growth from the ongoing erosion of Australia’s natural capital.

Biodiversity offsets are measurable conservation outcomes that compensate for the negative impacts of development.

Australia has been at the vanguard of developing biodiversity offset policy. One of the first biodiversity offset assessment methodologies legislated in Australia, was developed by the Fenner School’s Associate Professor Gibbons. Those methods have been adapted for the NSW Bio-banking Scheme, the original Queensland Government’s Environmental Offsets Framework and the NSW biodiversity offsets policy for major projects. 

More recently, Gibbons has collaborated with colleagues from the Federal Department of Environment, and the University of Queensland, to develop an assessment methodology for environmental offsets for impacts on Matters of National Significance in Australia, and is part of a an international team advising the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on biodiversity offset policy.

However, biodiversity offsets is a controversial policy.  Critics can point to very little evidence that biodiversity offsets result in no net loss of biodiversity. There are questions about the breadth of biodiversity that can be effectively offset, the availability of data to make informed decisions and the way offsets have been implemented in practice. Furthermore, there are ongoing pressures from regulators and industry to cut ‘green tape’.

In recent research, Gibbons and colleagues found that the circumstances in which biodiversity offsets are likely to result in no net loss of biodiversity are relatively limited, which means that development projects need to be sited carefully. This is in contrast to some proponents of the policy who suggest that it provides greater flexibility for development.

With the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage, Gibbons is using techniques in decision analysis (i.e., simulation and sensitivity analysis) to identify ways to streamline assessment methods—and therefore reduce ‘green tape’—without affecting the quality of decision-making.

Gibbons currently supervises a number of postgraduate students, including, Darren Le Roux, David Johnson and Shana Nerenberg who are researching how impacts of development on fauna and sensitive flora can be offset or restored, Dean Ansell who is identifying cost-effective ecological restoration options and Megan Evans who is researching how to evaluate the outcomes of biodiversity offsets.

Gibbons is also linking his research with undergraduate teaching so the next generation of environmental professionals are exposed to these issues.

Further information

  • Gibbons, P. and D. B. Lindenmayer (2007). “Offsets for land clearing: No net loss or the tail wagging the dog?” Ecological Management and Restoration 8: 26-31.
  • Gibbons, P., S. Briggs, D. Ayers, J. Seddon, S. Doyle, P. Cosier, C. McElhinny, V. Pelly and K. Roberts (2009). An operational method to assess impacts of land clearing on terrestrial biodiversity. Ecological Indicators 9(1): 26-40.
  • Gibbons, P., Evans, MC, Maron, M, Gordon, A, Le Roux, D, von Hase, A, Lindenmayer, DB, Possingham, HP (in review). An index to calculate if offsets result in no net loss of biodiversity.
  • Le Roux, D. S., K. Ikin, D. B. Lindenmayer, A. D. Manning and P. Gibbons (2014). The future of large old trees in urban landscapes. PloS one 9(6): e99403.
  • Miller, K, Tresize, J, Kraus, S, Dripps, K, Evans, MC, Gibbons, P, Possingham, HP, Maron, M. (in press). The development of the Australian environmental offsets policy: from theory to practice. Environmental Conservation.
  • ten Kate, K, J. Pilgrim, T. Brooks, P. Gibbons, J. Hughes, B. Mackey, J. Manuel, B. McKenney, S. Mehra, F. Quétier, J Watson (2015). Biodiversity Offsets Technical Study Paper. International Union for Conservation of Nature, Gland, Switzerland.
  • The trouble with offsets. ABC Radio National Background Briefing. 16 March 2014.