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The transition from No Net Loss to a Net Gain of biodiversity is far from trivial

  • deVilliers Brownlie Associates

Abstract and Figures

The objectives of No Net Loss and Net Gain have emerged as key principles in conservation policy. Both give rise to mechanisms by which certain unavoidable biodiversity losses associated with development are quantified, and compensated with comparable gains (e.g. habitat restoration). The former seeks a neutral outcome for biodiversity after losses and gains are accounted for, and the latter seeks an improved outcome. Policy-makers often assume that the transition from one to the other is straightforward and essentially a question of the amount of compensation provided. Consequently, companies increasingly favour Net Gain type commitments, and financial institutions make lending conditional on either objective, depending on the habitat involved. We contend, however, that achieving Net Gain is fundamentally different to achieving No Net Loss, and moving from one to the other is less trivial than is widely realized. Our contention is based on four arguments: (1) the two principles represent different underlying conservation philosophies; (2) ecological uncertainties make it difficult to know where the threshold between No Net Loss and Net Gain lies; (3) different frames of reference are more or less appropriate in evaluating the ecological outcomes, depending on the principle chosen; and (4) stakeholder expectations differ considerably under the two principles. In exploring these arguments we hope to support policy-makers in choosing the more appropriate of the two objectives. We suggest that financial institutions should provide greater clarity regarding the explicit requirements for each principle. We conclude by highlighting questions of relevance to this topic that would benefit from focused research.
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The transition from No Net Loss to a Net Gain of
biodiversity is far from trivial
Abstract The objectives of No Net Loss and Net Gain have
emerged as key principles in conservation policy. Both give
rise to mechanisms by which certain unavoidable biodiver-
sity losses associated with development are quantified, and
compensated with comparable gains (e.g. habitat restor-
ation). The former seeks a neutral outcome for biodiversity
after losses and gains are accounted for, and the latter seeks
an improved outcome. Policy-makers often assume that the
transition from one to the other is straightforward and es-
sentially a question of the amount of compensation pro-
vided. Consequently, companies increasingly favour Net
Gain type commitments, and financial institutions make
lending conditional on either objective, depending on the
habitat involved. We contend, however, that achieving Net
Gain is fundamentally different to achieving No Net Loss,
and moving from one to the other is less trivial than is
widely realized. Our contention is based on four arguments:
() the two principles represent different underlying conser-
vation philosophies; () ecological uncertainties make it dif-
ficult to know where the threshold between No Net Loss and
Net Gain lies; () different frames of reference are more or
less appropriate in evaluating the ecological outcomes, de-
pending on the principle chosen; and () stakeholder expec-
tations differ considerably under the two principles. In
exploring these arguments we hope to support policy-
makers in choosing the more appropriate of the two objec-
tives. We suggest that financial institutions should provide
greater clarity regarding the explicit requirements for each
principle. We conclude by highlighting questions of rele-
vance to this topic that would benefit from focused research.
Keywords Biodiversity offset, development impacts, frame
of reference, mitigation hierarchy, net gain, net positive, no
net loss, uncertainty
The challenge of finding mechanisms that conserve bio-
diversity alongside economic development is a priority
for humanity (Baillie et al., ; Mace et al., ). One
emerging principle that shows promise in this regard is
that of No Net Loss. The objective is to permit development
whilst retaining overall levels of biodiversity, by applying a
mitigation hierarchy (e.g. avoid, minimize, restore, offset;
BBOP, a) in relation to negative impacts of develop-
ment on nature. Despite the technical difficulties that arise
in implementation (Bull et al., a; Gardner et al., )
and the controversy surrounding the logic underpinning
No Net Loss (Apostolopoulou & Adams, ), the prin-
ciple is increasingly well established in international policy
(e.g. Madsen et al., ; Tucker et al., ) and corporate
practice (Rainey et al., ). It is consequently a topic of
ongoing research interest.
In  a conference was held on this topic: To no net loss
of biodiversity and beyond (BBOP, ). Throughout, there
was much talk of aiming for a net gain in biodiversity, as a
superior goal to No Net Loss. Net Gain is already reflected
both in relation to project finance (e.g. the International
Finance Corporation specifies the need for a net gain in bio-
diversity in critical habitat as a lending requirement; IFC,
) and in corporate sustainability strategies (e.g. Net
Positive Impact commitments; Rainey et al., ). The
choice of a commitment to positive Net Gain over the
more neutral No Net Loss is desirable to many stakeholders.
In theory it should represent a better outcome for biodiver-
sity conservation, whilst aligning with the Aichi targets
(CBD, ) and presumably the objectives of biodiversity
stakeholders. Furthermore, it is appealing to businesses
seeking a positive strategic message over a neutral one.
There has been scant commentary, however, on the im-
plications of transitioning from one objective to the other.
Net Gain is in some cases simply described as No Net
Loss plus(GN, guidance note to the International
Finance Corporations Performance Standard ; IFC,
), or where the biodiversity gains exceed a specific set
of losses(BBOP, b). Our view is that this transition is
poorly understood but presents significant challenges, some
of which we outline here.
It seems to be a common assumption that the difference
between achieving the two outcomes is almost trivial (e.g. if
a development clears  trees but the developer plants a
stand of  trees nearby then there is arguably no net
loss; if the developer plants  trees they have achieved a
net gain). We have heard this assumption implied through-
out the No Net Loss conference and elsewhere, although not
in the academic literature. The perceived triviality of such a
transition may partly explain corporate eagerness to make
J.W. BULL (Corresponding author) Department of Food and Resource
Economics & Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, University of
Copenhagen, Rolighedsvej 23, 1958 Copenhagen, Denmark
S. BROWNLIE deVilliers Brownlie Associates, Claremont, South Africa
Received April . Revision requested  May .
Accepted July .
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positive rather than neutral commitments. However, the
differences between the two policy objectives are more sig-
nificant than is currently widely appreciated. The challenges
we explore here illustrate the complexities of the transition
from No Net Loss to Net Gain.
Note that when we refer to biodiversity value, it is in-
tended in this context to mean a measure of any component
of biodiversity that has intrinsic use or cultural significance
for one or more stakeholders, and any component that
forms the basis of impact assessment and mitigation efforts,
including biodiversity offsetting.
The transition from No Net Loss to Net Gain
Distinct underlying conservation philosophies
Whether or not either of the policy objectives can be met
depends explicitly on their scope and what they are intended
to achieve by when (ten Kate & Crowe, ). At its simplest,
to achieve No Net Loss, loss of biodiversity values must be
fully compensated by commensurate gains in those values.
To achieve the more positive objective of a Net Gain, the
biodiversity status quo must be improved, either by over-
compensating for loss in the biodiversity values affected,
or by ensuring no net loss in those values and then provid-
ing additional gains in other biodiversity values. The latter
would involve so-called out-of-kind biodiversity compensa-
tion. Out-of-kind compensation is not synonymous with a
Net Gain objective but is one way of attempting to achieve it.
The concept of like for like or betterexchanges is a
widely held tenet of No Net Loss policy and is expressed
in key standards (e.g. BBOP, a; IFC, ). In certain
contexts gains in a biodiversity component other than that
affected, but of higher conservation value, may be permitted
to count towards achieving No Net Loss/Net Gain (so-called
trading up), rather than requiring like for like gains.
Tensions exist between the like for like and the ...or better
concepts; the former adheres predominantly to scientific
metrics for impact-compensation exchanges, whereas the
latter moves into the realm of societal value judgements,
for which there is no easy metric to convert losses of one
type of biodiversity to gains in another. In some cases the
former may be possible using relatively straightforward
species- or habitat-based metrics, whereas the latter may re-
quire a better understanding of (and metrics that capture)
ecological processes. This shift exacerbates the complexity
of determining when policy goals have been reached.
Occasionally the wisdom of strict like for like constraints
is challenged (Habib et al., ), as conservation objectives
may not always be best served through in-kind exchanges.
Using an example of ecological compensation in relation
to oil and gas activity in north-west Uzbekistan (Bull
et al., b), direct losses primarily comprise clearance of
vegetation for infrastructure (Jones et al., ). A strict
framework for full ecological compensation here could po-
tentially require restoration of vegetation across the land-
scape (Fig. ). However, the vegetation cleared during the
past c.  years for oil and gas represents c. .% of the re-
gional habitat by area, and therefore spending funds on its
restoration or protection would not necessarily deliver ma-
terial gains for conservation. Conversely, funding the cre-
ation and operation of aggregated areas where poaching
pressure on threatened fauna was removed, with habitat
protection as an incidental outcome, could represent a
more valuable gain for biodiversity conservation. The latter
approach is out of kind, as losses in grassland would be
traded for gains in fauna conservation, but could deliver
an overall gain from the perspective of conserving priority
biodiversity in Uzbekistan (i.e. would satisfy the ...or bet-
tercondition). Comparable arguments have been made
elsewhere, for example for caribou in Canada (with offsets
that target caribou as an out of kind priority species in ex-
change for vegetation losses; Habib et al., ).
In the Uzbek case if no net loss of specific biodiversity
components were the intention of policy-makers (as for
wetlands in the USA, for example) then the developer
might be obliged to carry out an equivalent amount of
FIG. 1 Extant oil and gas industry infrastructure in north-west
Uzbekistan, alongside potentially optimal regions for biodiversity
offsets. Infrastructure, mapped using data collected by Jones
et al. (), is known to affect fauna and flora negatively in this
region. Potential biodiversity offset sites (displayed here
schematically) were determined based on quantitative analyses
undertaken by Bull (); optimum sites were identified both
for like-for-like offsets (vegetation restoration) and for
out-of-kind offsets (fauna protection).
2 J. W. Bull and S. Brownlie
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habitat restoration, or restore a bit more than was lost to
achieve a net gain. However, the intention is to achieve
net conservation gain, making a stronger case for taking a
more flexible approach, targeting higher priority biodiver-
sity (i.e. fauna species, provided that credible exchange
rules are in place). This example emphasizes a possible dis-
tinction between the two policy objectives: that No Net Loss
could be used to target predominantly likebiodiversity and
maintenance of existing biodiversity trajectories, whereas
Net Gain may aim to achieve gains for conservation overall
using more out of kindexchanges. The transition from the
former to the latter can represent a fundamental shift in
philosophy, away from one in which the prevailing trend
in biodiversity is accepted even if that is a decline, and the
trajectory is not altered (Gordon et al., ), to one in which
the commitment is used as a mechanism for reversing bio-
diversity declines in priority areas for conservation, poten-
tially with more acceptability of out of kind approaches.
Such a shift in underlying philosophy becomes particularly
important in the context of concerns, held by some, that in
No Net Loss policies involving biodiversity offsets a dys-
topian future of continued biodiversity loss is presented as
the only alternative(Apostolopoulou & Adams, )
concerns that may presumably be partly mollified under
policies requiring a Net Gain.
According to International Finance Corporation guide-
lines, where development occurs in critical habitat a net
gain in the biodiversity values for which the critical habitat
was designated is required to satisfy Performance Standard
(IFC, ). However, where an environmental impact as-
sessment concludes that there will be no residual impacts on
the components relevant to the critical habitat designation,
no net loss is effectively already predicted. There is therefore
no need to further demonstrate quantitatively that offset
measures would achieve No Net Loss, as any such measures
(presuming they result in positive outcomes for critical
habitat components) could be presumed to meet the Net
Gain requirement. This facilitates flexibility in designing en-
hancement measures (e.g. Rajvanshi et al., ) and in such
cases apparently obviates the need to further quantify losses
and gains.
Uncertainty in achieving no net loss
Demonstrating that biodiversity gains balance losses is a key
element of No Net Loss. However, the relevant calculations
are subject to uncertainty and risk in a variety of ways; for
example, uncertainty in the success and timing of ecological
restoration (Maron et al., ), measurement error or
vagueness in key terms (Kujala et al., ), and uncertainty
in the degree to which developers will comply with policy
(Bull et al., a). To ensure a neutral outcome, taking ac-
count of the uncertainties in project design and implemen-
tation, projects generally design compensation measures
that create more biodiversity value than is lost, often using
project multipliers (Moilanen et al., ; Pickett et al.,
). Multipliers are used to improve confidence levels in
achieving neutral or net positive biodiversity outcomes
(BBOP, b). The fact that meeting a No Net Loss object-
ive often effectively requires overcompensating for losses
means that it is not straightforward to specify how large
gains should be in the case of a Net Gain policy objective.
Fig. illustrates the net outcome for biodiversity calculated
for the Uzbek case study using biodiversity offset methodolo-
gies from various jurisdictions (Bull et al., a). Even
FIG. 2 Simulated net condition-area trajectories for Uzbek scrub habitat, achieved under three biodiversity offset methodologies, for
the case study of oil and gas infrastructure in north-west Uzbekistan (Fig. ). The condition-area of any one patch of habitat is the
patch area × the condition of the patch (normalized between and ). Vertical lines indicate uncertainty bounds. The methodologies
applied (for illustration) are fish habitat compensation (Canada), biodiversity offsetting pilot (UK) and native grassland compensation
(Victoria, Australia). Net outcome is calculated as the condition-area of habitat gains from offset sites minus the condition-area of
habitat losses as a result of development activities. When net outcome = , No Net Loss is achieved; when net outcome ., Net Gain
is achieved. (Adapted from Bull et al., a)
Transition from No Net Loss to Net Gain 3
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methodologies that should theoretically lead to an overall
outcome of net gain can result in a neutral outcome or
even net loss, once uncertainties are taken into account.
The analysis by Bull et al. (a) considered uncertainty
only in terms of error in the measurement and estimation
of biodiversity losses (i.e. development impacts) and uncer-
tainty in policy compliance; many other sources of uncer-
tainty exist, which would amplify the divergence in outcomes.
If proving that a No Net Loss objective has been attained
requires aiming for a Net Gain in any case, what additional
measures would be needed to demonstrate that a Net Gain
has been achieved? Either () the project must include a
well-developed and quantified understanding of all uncer-
tainties associated with the development and compensation
measures, which is currently beyond the science, let alone
practice, or () the additional biodiversity value created is
such that there can be almost no question that Net Gain is
achieved. Choosing the latter option would rely to some ex-
tent upon informed estimation and could have significant
cost implications compared to the former; this is not a rea-
son to rule it out but is an important consideration. In cases
in which societal value judgements have been incorporated
into questionable exchange rules and in which uncertainties
are large enough, arguably it is impossible to determine the
point at which a given project transitioned from a neutral to
a net positive outcome for biodiversity.
Frame of reference
The outcome of implementing a given conservation policy
depends on the ecological baseline against which it is eval-
uated (Gordon et al., ). This is especially relevant to pol-
icies with measurable goals as a fundamental characteristic,
such as those discussed here. However, the appropriate
choice of baseline is not straightforward, and it is possible
to specify alternative counterfactuals for evaluation (i.e. dy-
namic baselines, for alternative scenarios that could have oc-
curred in the absence of the policy being implemented;
Ferraro & Pattanayak, ). The baseline and set of plaus-
ible counterfactual scenarios used for evaluation can to-
gether be called the frame of reference (Bull et al., b).
The choice of reference frame can significantly influence
the observed outcome; the same policy leading to the same
set of conservation actions can result in net loss, no net loss
or a net gain in biodiversity. Some reference frames make
achieving certain outcomes improbable (Bull et al., b);
for instance, a set of policy-driven compensatory mitigation
actions evaluated against a no-development counterfactual
could point to a net loss for biodiversity, whereas the
same actions evaluated against a business-as-usual counter-
factual might always result in a net gain (Gordon et al., ;
Bull et al., b). The chosen frame of reference embodies
decisions about the spatial and temporal scales upon which
conservation policy is evaluated, which can materially affect
whether No Net Loss or Net Gain objectives are met.
In some respects this point blurs the line between the two
policy goals under discussion: the difference between achiev-
ing neutrality and net gain could be said to rest upon the
frame of reference chosen for evaluation. However, the choice
of baseline or counterfactual does not simply alter the conclu-
sions drawn from evaluation, it also influences the incentives
for participants in the implementation of the policy, and
therefore ultimately their choices, which determine the phys-
ical outcomes of the policy (Bull et al., b).
Consequently, specifying either No Net Loss or Net Gain
as a policy objective requires specifying the frame of refer-
ence to be used in evaluation at both a project and a policy
level. However, it may be appropriate in some cases to use
different baselines to evaluate the various outcomes. For ex-
ample, a No Net Loss policy objective implies a desire not to
exacerbate declines during development projects, perhaps
suggesting evaluation against a no-development counterfac-
tual. Alternatively, a Net Gain objective could imply a desire
to halt and reverse biodiversity declines in the landscape,
suggesting evaluation against a fixed current baseline.
Thus, the transition from one to the other could involve
considering a change in the frame of reference against
which the conservation policy is evaluated. In turn, any
modification of the frame of reference could alter the phys-
ical outcomes by altering incentives for those implementing
the policy.
Stakeholder perceptions
There is some opposition to the implementation of both
policy objectives, and to related mechanisms such as bio-
diversity offsetting (e.g. Burgin, ; Walker et al., ;
Curran et al., ). Moreover, there is often mistrust
amongst public stakeholders in offsetting, which has, for in-
stance, been a barrier to the establishment of such policies in
the UK (Gordon et al., ).
Part of a companys rationale for choosing a Net Gain
commitment over No Net Loss is that the former sends a
more positive message. The International Financial
Corporations distinction between neutral compensation re-
quirements for natural habitat where feasible and net gain
requirements for critical habitat (IFC, ) suggests that
the difference between the two is significant, possibly foster-
ing raised expectations of offset performance.
Although it has been shown that biodiversity offsets can
improve a companys social licence to operate (Richert et al.,
), many stakeholders will have less confidence that a
company can achieve net biodiversity gains rather than
No Net Loss. This, in turn, could engender mistrust. In
the case of Rio Tinto, for example, who have committed
to a policy of Net Positive Impact (Rainey et al., ), we
4 J. W. Bull and S. Brownlie
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contest that, whatever they achieve in practice, many mem-
bers of the public are unlikely to believe that one of the lar-
gest extractive companies is having a net positive impact
upon nature. Conversely, by implication, No Net Loss com-
mitments suggest only that a company is cleaning up its
mess, which is perhaps a more tenable concept to the non-
specialist. Again, the transition from one policy objective to
the other is arguably not trivial if one is much more difficult
to argue convincingly in a public forum. The ability or
otherwise to convince stakeholders of a companys biodiver-
sity achievements represents material reputational risks.
There are some who regard the policy objectives discussed
here as a symbolic but illusory goal(Walker et al., )
or would dispute whether either goal represents desirable
conservation policy. Challenges to achieving No Net Loss/
Net Gain have been discussed in the literature (Gardner
et al., ; Bull et al., a), and include difficulties in man-
aging uncertainties (Moilanen et al., ), ensuring suc-
cessful restoration (Maron et al., ; Curran et al., ),
applying appropriate currencies, multipliers and exchange
rules (BBOP, b), and avoiding perverse incentives
(Gordon et al., ). Both policy principles remain contro-
versial (Apostolopoulou & Adams, ). However, the idea
that businesses should contribute towards ecosystem restor-
ation and the reversal of biodiversity declines has consider-
able support (Bayon & Jenkins, ), to the extent that it is
included within the Aichi targets (Target ; CBD, ).
We consider the policy objectives of No Net Loss and Net
Gain to be laudable. Here, we have examined the implica-
tions of and highlighted the differences between the two
objectives, contending that there may be practical ramifica-
tions arising from choosing one over the other. In many
cases, however, achievement of either goal is subject to the
same methodological challenges (e.g. baselines for compari-
son, time-frames, choice of metrics, uncertainty).
Our exploration of the transition from No Net Loss to
Net Gain may suggest the approaches are on a continuum:
in the simplest case, Net Gain may simply be an extension of
No Net Loss, being defined in relation to the same biodiver-
sity values and applying a like for like exchange. However, it
may not be the case that one is always required to be a step-
ping stone towards the other. There are a number of open
questions relevant to this topic. They include but are not
limited to the following:
.How often designing for No Net Loss incidentally leads
to Net Gain, and vice versa;
.The extent to which loss of biodiversity is accepted in ex-
change for conservation of biodiversity of a higher prior-
ity to achieve either No Net Loss or Net Gain, and on
what basis;
.The extent to which the transition from No Net Loss to
Net Gain is viewed as a continuum, and under what con-
ditions and how frequently it is deemed acceptable to tar-
get one set of biodiversity components for the former
and a different set for the latter;
.Whether or not Net Gain of biodiversity and Net Gain
for conservation are perceived as the same or different
objectives (i.e. must Net Gain be defined in relation to
societal priorities for conservation?);
.Whether the exchange rules for attaining No Net Loss
and Net Gain differ in practice;
.How the two objectives apply with respect to social and
cultural benefits and values.
Regardless of ones perspective the transition from No Net
Loss to Net Gain requires further debate and research, espe-
cially given its importance to policy. The question of
whether one is different from the other is relevant to corpor-
ate considerations regarding setting and evaluating bio-
diversity policy and strategy, which is an emerging item
on the corporate sustainability agenda (Rainey et al.,
2015); to the widespread implementation of the mitigation
hierarchy under the International Finance Corporations
Performance Standard 6 guidelines, which require a neutral
outcome in certain habitats and a positive one in others
(IFC, 2012); and to the development of national policy, as
No Net Loss is currently under consideration or revision
as a policy principle in a number of jurisdictions (e.g.
Madsen et al., 2010; Defra, 2011; Tucker et al., 2013;
Poulton, 2014).
The difficulty and feasibility of transitioning from No
Net Loss to Net Gain should not be underestimated. We
have presented four arguments as to why this is the case:
() the two principles often represent different underlying
philosophies on the part of policy-makers; () theoretical
and practical sources of uncertainty make it unclear when
the transition has occurred; () the transition is complicated
by the question of whether the same frame of reference is
appropriate in both cases; and () the two principles are
likely to evoke different perceptions and expectations
among stakeholders. On the basis of this discussion, we ad-
vise the following:
For regulators, policy-makers, consultants, businesses, fi-
nancial institutions and researchers: distinguishing between
No Net Loss and Net Gain as policy principles, recognizing
the connection between them but also that they can have
fundamental differences; and differentiating between, and
defining permissible application of like for like and ...or
betterexchanges of biodiversity in relation to specific con-
texts and desired outcomes.
For regulators and policy-makers: clearly defining the
scope of application of either or both policy principles, to
inform approaches in practice (i.e. to what does each policy
principle apply, and what outcomes at what scale are
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required?); and clarifying whether and under what circum-
stances out of kind exchanges would be permitted in rela-
tion to both principles (e.g. in achieving No Net Loss, or
only once No Net Loss has been achieved in attaining Net
For consultants: paying particular attention to the spe-
cific outcomes required under either principle within
time-frames required for each case and context, including
exchange options, likely risks and uncertainties, optimum
frames of reference, and choice of metrics.
For businesses: taking into account the frames of refer-
ence, time-frames and the range of uncertainties associated
with pursuing either No Net Loss or Net Gain outcomes
when deciding on policy, balancing the potential reputa-
tional benefits of the latter against the greater potential to
be discredited.
For financial institutions: being more explicit about lend-
ing requirements, particularly in terms of the extra burden
of proof upon achieving and being able to demonstrate de-
fensibly a net positive rather than a net neutral outcome for
We thank Amrei von Hase, Bruce McKenney and Leon
Bennun for insightful comments and constructive criticism
during the discussion of this topic at the  BBOP confer-
ence. JWB is supported by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie
Fellowship award from the European Commission.
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Biographical sketches
JOSEPH BULL explores the outcomes of human activities in a range of
ecosystems at macro-ecological scales, considering system change and
uncertainties, through simulation modelling and spatial analyses. He
has a particular research interest in the topic of business and biodiver-
sity. SUSIE BROWNLIE has worked in the field of environmental
assessment for over  years. Her core interest is in biodiversity-
inclusive impact assessment at strategic and project levels. She has
been involved in the developing field of biodiversity offsets, has pre-
pared policy and guidance, and has worked on specific offset projects.
Her other interests are ecosystem services and socialecological
resilience as applied to environmental assessment and planning.
Transition from No Net Loss to Net Gain 7
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... Most prominently, no net loss is associated with application of the mitigation hierarchy, including biodiversity offsets-a form of ecological compensation where direct, indirect and cumulative residual biodiversity losses (e.g., from a development like a new mine, port, road, or similar) are counterbalanced by gains of biodiversity elsewhere, preferably of the same kind (Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme [BBOP], 2012a;Quétier & Lavorel, 2011;Raiter et al., 2014). Increasingly though, mitigation policy including ecological compensation, requires project developers to achieve more than no net loss, and is framed around net gain objectives (Bull & Brownlie, 2017;de Silva et al., 2019;Rainey et al., 2014;zu Ermgassen et al., 2021). This policy shift towards net gain outcomes seems welltimed and neatly aligned with the increasing ambition of the Post-2020 GBF, where no net loss alone will be insufficient to achieve the biodiversity increases called for by 2030 and 2050. ...
... Much has been written about the way in which gains are delivered in ecological compensation (Bull & Brownlie, 2017;Bull et al., 2020;Maron et al., 2018;Moilanen & Kotiaho, 2020;Quétier & Lavorel, 2011). Broadly speaking, gains can be measured in "relative" terms (i.e., to a predicted future trend of biodiversity decline), or absolute terms (i.e., real increases over time, compared to the current state). ...
... It does, however, require absolute gains from compensatory actions (Andreadakis et al., 2021). However, the question of "how much" gain should be provided for a given loss remains a key challenge in ecological compensation policy and practice (Bull & Brownlie, 2017;Moilanen & Kotiaho, 2020;Simmonds et al., 2020;Simpson et al., 2021;Weissgerber et al., 2019). ...
Full-text available
Increasingly, government and corporate policies on ecological compensation (e.g., offsetting) are requiring “net gain” outcomes for biodiversity. This presents an opportunity to align development with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity Post‐2020 Global Biodiversity Framework's (GBF) proposed ambition for overall biodiversity recovery. In this perspective, we describe three conditions that should be accounted for in net gain policy to align outcomes with biodiversity recovery goals: namely, a requirement for residual losses from development to be compensated for by (1) absolute gains, which are (2) scaled to the achievement of explicit biodiversity targets, where (3) gains are demonstrably feasible. We show that few current policies meet these conditions, which risks undermining efforts to achieve the proposed Post‐2020 GBF milestones and goals, as well as other jurisdictional policy imperatives to halt and reverse biodiversity decline. To guide future decision‐making, we provide a supporting decision tree outlining net gain compensation feasibility.
... For the definition of a positive impact, it is crucial to understand its direction (i.e., what is the "sending" and the "receiving" system?). Furthermore, the quality of a potential positive impact depends upon the specific circumstances within the receiving system (Bull and Brownlie 2017). The occurrence of various and somewhat fragmented approaches regarding socio-technical system characteristics, system design principles and system management functions shows the need to derive a holistic and more general understanding of this subject. ...
... Positive impacts on biodiversity are presented in various business cases, in which biodiversity-related activities are integrated into project development plans or corporate strategies in the mining, chemical, energy and manufacturing industry (Rainey et al. 2015). The International Union on Conservation and Nature (IUCN) defines a net-positive impact on biodiversity (see Temple et al. 2012;Aiama et al. 2015) must be beyond offsetting, equivalent in the ecological value and permanent to ensure a net gain (Bull and Brownlie 2017), and could be supported by ecosystem valuation (NPI 2015a, b). Biodiversity-related positive impacts often show a connection to local communities (Rainey et al. 2015). ...
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Socio-technical systems represent complex interactions of humans with ecological, social and economic systems. A system’s design and its operations determine whether its impact is “negative”, “neutral/zero” or “positive” over the system life cycle with regard to its contribution to sustainable development. But coping with exceeded planetary boundaries and social challenges requires more than “net-zero” approaches to achieve biosphere resilience and healthy societies. While negative and zero impacts are widely studied, the term “positive impact” has just recently gained importance to describe the outcome of design, planning, operational, organizational or engineering processes. Various case studies, reviews and conceptual proposals exist—mostly applied in a specific context—but a clear definition is not yet detectable. Based on a review of existing literature, this paper: (i) analyzes current perceptions of negative, zero and positive impacts of socio-technical systems on absolute sustainability, (ii) summarizes the current state of knowledge on positive impact concepts for sustainable development, (iii) identifies relevant socio-technical system design principles for positive impacts on biosphere, society and economy, (iv) derives management functions and organizational prerequisites within socio-technical systems to enable positive impacts, (v) proposes a guiding framework and a definition for “positive impact of socio-technical systems for absolute sustainability”, and (vi) discusses briefly potential applications and further research demand. This review intends to synthesize existing knowledge from an industrial and engineering design perspective, and delivers an overview on the subject from a global sustainability level to the operational level. The derived insights provide a basis for method development, system design processes and new business models.
... Ecological restoration is being operationalised through a range of international and national initiatives, including the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Bonn Challenge, the English Nature Recovery Network (Isaac et al. 2018), the Everglades Restoration Plan (ERP 2021) and Gondwana Link (GL 2021). An increasing reliance on restoration is also reflected by the emergence of no net loss and net gain principles for biodiversity during infrastructure developments (Bull and Brownlie 2017). The current paradigm for restoration focuses on the re-establishment of 'indigenous reference' ecosystems and the species, communities and features defining them (Gann et al. 2019). ...
... Legislation and policy typically remain targeted on rare or threatened species and associated habitats; for example, the Habitats and Birds Directives of the European Union or the USA Endangered Species Act. Even more recent legislative and policy developments such as no net loss and net gain focus on offsetting biodiversity losses that occur because of human developments (Bull and Brownlie 2017). While conventional targets to restore a preferred habitat might deliver increased complexity, functioning and resilience, this should not be assumed. ...
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Ecological restoration has a paradigm of re-establishing ‘indigenous reference' communities. One resulting concern is that focussing on target communities may not necessarily create systems which function at a high level or are resilient in the face of ongoing global change. Ecological complexity – defined here, based on theory, as the number of components in a system and the number of connections among them – provides a complementary aim, which can be measured directly and has several advantages. Ecological complexity encompasses key ecosystem variables including structural heterogeneity, trophic interactions and functional diversity. Ecological complexity can also be assessed at the landscape scale, with metrics including β diversity, heterogeneity among habitat patches and connectivity. Thus, complexity applies, and can be measured, at multiple scales. Importantly, complexity is linked to system emergent properties, e.g. ecosystem functions and resilience, and there is evidence that both are enhanced by complexity. We suggest that restoration ecology should consider a new paradigm to restore complexity at multiple scales, in particular of individual ecosystems and across landscapes. A complexity approach can make use of certain current restoration methods but also encompass newer concepts such as rewilding. Indeed, a complexity goal might in many cases best be achieved by interventionist restoration methods. Incorporating complexity into restoration policies could be quite straightforward. Related aims such as enhancing ecosystem services and ecological resilience are to the fore in initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Implementation in policy and practice will need the development of complexity metrics that can be applied at both local and regional scales. Ultimately, the adoption of an ecological complexity paradigm will be based on an acceptance that the ongoing and unprecedented global environmental change requires new ways of doing restoration that is fit for the future.
... This development toward stronger involvement of nonstate and subnational actors is not uncontested and has at least two dimensions (see also Chapter 3). It requires working with nonstate actors with the power and ability to induce ownership and leadership to work for biodiversity (Bull and Brownlie, 2017;Bull et al., 2020;Smith et al., 2019), as well as addressing vested interests that may resist transformative change. Such vested interests may include sectors that are based on the (often unsustainable) use of natural resources, including biodiversity. ...
Full-text available
Over fifty years of global conservation has failed to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, so we need to transform the ways we govern biodiversity. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity aims to develop and implement a transformative framework for the coming decades. However, the question of what transformative biodiversity governance entails and how it can be implemented is complex. This book argues that transformative biodiversity governance means prioritizing ecocentric, compassionate and just sustainable development. This involves implementing five governance approaches - integrative, inclusive, adaptive, transdisciplinary and anticipatory governance - in conjunction and focused on the underlying causes of biodiversity loss and unsustainability. Transforming Biodiversity Governance is an invaluable source for academics, policy makers and practitioners working in biodiversity and sustainability governance. This is one of a series of publications associated with the Earth System Governance Project. For more publications, see This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
... Another question of interest is how the present results and arguments carry over to "net gain policies" which aim at a net increase in ecological benefits (Bull and Brownlie 2015). Within the present framework there appears no obvious reason why this should not be the case, but future research may explore this issue in more detail. ...
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Tradable permits, or offsetting schemes, are increasingly used as an instrument for the conservation of biodiversity on private lands. Since the restoration of degraded land often involves uncertainties and time lags, conservation biologists have strongly recommended that credits in conservation offset schemes should be awarded only with the completion of the restoration process. Otherwise, the instrument is claimed to fail on the objective of no net loss in species habitat and biodiversity. What is ignored in these arguments, however, is that such a scheme design may incur higher economic costs than a design in which credits are already awarded at the initiation of the restoration process. In the present paper a generic agent-based ecological-economic simulation model is developed to explore different pros and cons of the two scheme designs, in particular their cost-effectiveness. The model considers spatially heterogeneous and dynamic conservation costs, risk aversion and time preferences in the landowners, as well as uncertainty in the duration and the success of the restoration process. It turns out that, especially under fast change of the conservation costs, awarding credits at the initiation of restoration can be more cost-effective than awarding them with completion of restoration.
... Not surprisingly, the concept is not without controversy and there are key ethical, social, governance, and technical issues that need to be considered (Maron et al., 2016). Ideally off-sets should require little ongoing maintenance, mimic nature's form and function to the greatest extent possible (as opposed to overly-engineered solutions; Bradshaw, 1996), represent a true gain (that is, the ratio of the off-set to the loss is well above 1:1-the target should be 2:1 or greater; Bull et al., 2013;Bull and Brownlie, 2016;Gardner et al., 2013;Quigley and Harper, 2006), and be as close to the affected sites as possible unless deemed to be best delivered off-site. It is also important, however, to consider the consequences of hydropower impacts throughout the entire basin and to appropriately spread offsetting/compensation to all people affected. ...
Hydropower production is one of the greatest threats to fluvial ecosystems and freshwater biodiversity. Now that we have entered the Anthropocene, there is an opportunity to reflect on what might constitute a ‘sustainable’ Anthropocene in the context of hydropower and riverine fish populations. Considering elements of existing practices that promote favorable social-ecological outcomes (i.e., ‘bright spots’) is timely given that there are plans to expand hydropower capacity in previously undammed rivers, intensify dam development in some of the world’s largest river systems, and re-license existing facilities. We approach this from a pragmatic perspective: for the foreseeable future, hydropower will likely remain an important source of renewable electricity. To offer support for moving toward a more ‘sustainable’ Anthropocene, we provide syntheses of best practices during the siting, design, construction, operation, and compensation phases of hydropower development to minimize impacts on inland fish. For each phase, we offer positive examples (or what might be considered ‘bright spots’) pertaining to some of the approaches described within our syntheses, acknowledging that these projects may not be viewed as without ecological and (or) societal detriment by all stakeholders. Our findings underscore the importance of protecting critical habitat and free-flowing river reaches through careful site selection and basin-scale planning, infrastructure designs that minimize reservoir effects and facilitate safe passage of fish, construction of hydropower plants using best practices that minimize long-term damage, operating guidelines that mimic natural flow conditions, and compensation that is lasting, effective, inclusive, and locally relevant. Learning from these ‘bright spots’ may require engagement of diverse stakeholders, professionals, and governments at scales that extend well beyond a given site, river, or even basin. Indeed environmental planning that integrates hydropower development into broader discussions is important for conserving regional biodiversity and ecosystem services.
... When applied as the final step of the mitigation hierarchy, biodiversity offsets are typically intended to achieve a net outcome in which there is (at least) 'no net loss' of the impacted biodiversity as a result of a particular project (BBOP, 2012;Bull et al., 2016;IUCN, 2016). Increasingly though, mitigation policy including ecological compensation, requires project developers to achieve more than no net loss, and is framed around net gain objectives (Bull and Brownlie, 2017;de Silva et al., 2019;Rainey et al., 2014;zu Ermgassen et al., 2021). This policy shift towards net gain outcomes seems well-timed and neatly aligned with the increasing ambition of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, where no net loss alone will be insufficient to achieve the biodiversity increases called for by 2030and 2050(Milner-Gulland et al., 2021. ...
Conflicts between agriculture and biodiversity conservation in Europe are increasing, due to multiple demands from agricultural ecosystems, including a growing need for high quality and good-value agricultural products, as well as the provision of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Currents trends such as globalization, European policies, and global change, such as climate change and nitrogen atmospheric deposition are potentially driving the emergence or evolution of biodiversity conflicts in Europe. These trends are interwoven with continuing debates around land-sparing and land-sharing, that often lead to conflicting perspectives and social dynamics that influence how local actors interact with each other over agriculture. Whilst some strategies have been put in place to address the potential competition between agriculture and biodiversity, such as reglementary and market-based mechanisms, and non-monetary voluntary approaches, these need to be reflected upon and improved for a future agriculture where the negative impacts of conflicts are minimized. This paper provides a comprehensive update on the current and future trends and evaluates current strategies, to highlight the importance of addressing conflict not only through technical fixes but by developing approaches that involve profound changes in agricultural systems and a shift in how people collaborate, perceive conflict and address it. We propose three emerging pathways—agroecology, a shift to partnerships, and conflict transformation—that would support a positive change for the future of biodiversity conflicts in agriculture.
Policy tools are needed which allow us to reconcile human development pressures with conservation management priorities. Biodiversity offsetting is a tool that can be used to compensate for ecological losses caused by development activities. Landowners can choose to undertake conservation actions including habitat restoration to generate biodiversity offsets. Consideration of the incentives facing landowners as potential biodiversity offset providers, and developers as potential buyers of credits, is critical when considering the ecological and economic landscape scale outcomes of alternative offset metrics. There is an expectation that landowners will always seek to conserve the least profitable land parcels and in turn, this determines the spatial location of biodiversity offset credits. We developed an ecological-economic model to compare the ecological and economic outcomes of offsetting for a habitat-based metric and a species-based metric. We were interested in whether these metrics would adequately capture the indirect benefits of offsetting on species not defined under the no net loss policy. We simulated a biodiversity offset market for a case study landscape, linking species distribution modelling and an economic model of landowner choice based on economic returns of the alternative land management options (restore, develop, or maintain existing land use). We found that neither the habitat nor species metric adequately captured the indirect benefits of offsetting on related habitats or species. The underlying species distributions, layered with the agricultural and development rental values of parcels, resulted in very different landscape outcomes depending on the metric chosen. Where policymakers are aiming for the metric to act as an indicator to mitigate impacts on a range of closely related habitats and species, then a simple no net loss target is not adequate. Furthermore, if we wish to secure the most ecologically beneficial design of offsets policy, we need to understand the economic decision-making processes of the landowners. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
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Habitat exchange programs, a form of biodiversity offsetting, aim to compensate for negative impacts in one area by conservation in another. A newer subset of habitat exchange programs includes programs that have three distinct characteristics: they allow for temporary (as opposed to only permanent) credits; they are centralized and overseen by nonregulatory, independent administrators; and they exist in the absence of mandatory mitigation policy. As a result, these programs may be relatively flexible and practical in areas where environmental regulation is unpalatable politically. We synthesized gray and peer‐reviewed literature to evaluate these programs’ strengths and shortcomings. On the basis of our synthesis, we suggest that temporary conservation credits in habitat exchanges could encourage participation of landowners in conservation and enable programs to respond to environmental change. However, temporary credits can lead to trade‐offs between flexibility and uncertainty. Moreover, there is little evidence that these habitat exchange programs have benefited target species, and many challenges associated with offsetting programs persist. Newer forms of habitat exchange programs may have potential to achieve no net loss or net gains of biodiversity to a greater extent than other forms of offsetting, but this potential has not yet been realized.
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The increased urbanization and human population growth of the recent decades have resulted in the loss of urban green spaces. One policy used to prevent the loss of urban green space is ecological compensation. Ecological compensation is the final step in the mitigation hierarchy; compensation measures should thus be a last resort after all opportunities to implement the earlier steps of the hierarchy have been exhausted. Ecological compensation should balance the ecological damage, aiming for a “no net loss” of biodiversity and ecosystem services. In this study, we develop a simple model that can be used as tool to study the welfare effects of applying ecological compensation when green space is at risk of being exploited, both at an aggregate level for society and for different groups of individuals. Our focus is on urban green space and the value of the ecosystem service—recreation—that urban green space provides. In a case study, we show how the model can be used in the planning process to evaluate the welfare effects of compensation measures at various sites within the city. The results from the case study indicate that factors such as population density and proximity to green space have a large impact on aggregate welfare from green space and on net welfare when different compensation sites are compared against each other.
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Biodiversity offsetting involves the balancing of biodiversity loss in one place (and at one time) by an equivalent biodiversity gain elsewhere (an outcome referred to as No Net Loss). The conservation science literature has chiefly addressed the extent to which biodiversity offsets can serve as a conservation tool, focusing on the technical challenges of its implementation. However, offsetting has more profound implications than this technical approach suggests. In this paper we introduce the concept of policy frames, and use it to identify four ways in which non-human nature and its conservation are reframed by offsetting. Firstly, offsetting reframes nature in terms of isolated biodiversity units that can be simply defined, measured and exchanged across time and space to achieve equivalence between ecological losses and gains. Secondly, it reframes biodiversity as lacking locational specificity, ignoring broader dimensions of place and deepening a nature–culture and nature–society divide. Thirdly, it reframes conservation as an exchange of credits implying that the value of non-human nature can be set by price. Fourthly, it ties conservation to land development and economic growth, foreshadowing and bypassing an oppositional position. We conclude that by presenting offsetting as a technical issue, the problem of biodiversity loss due to development is depoliticized. As a result the possibility of opposing and challenging environmental destruction is foreclosed, and a dystopian future of continued biodiversity loss is presented as the only alternative.
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Increased recognition of the business case for managing corporate impacts on the environment has helped drive increasingly detailed and quantified corporate environmental goals. Foremost among these are goals of no net loss (NNL) and net positive impact (NPI). We assess the scale and growth of such corporate goals. Since the first public, company-wide NNL/NPI goal in 2001, 32 companies have set similar goals, of which 18 specifically include biodiversity. Mining companies have set the most NNL/NPI goals, and the majority of those that include biodiversity, despite the generally lower total global impact of the mining industry on biodiversity compared to the agriculture or forestry industries. This could be linked to the mining industry's greater participation in best practice bodies, high-profile impacts, and higher profit margins per area of impact. The detail and quality of present goals vary widely. We examined specific NNL/NPI goals and assessed the extent to which their key components were likely to increase the effectiveness of these goals in benefiting biodiversity and managing business risk. Nonetheless, outcomes are more important than goals, and we urge conservationists to work with companies to both support and monitor their efforts to achieve increasingly ambitious environmental goals.
Full-text available
Climate change is an important threat to biodiversity globally, but there are major uncertainties associated with its magnitude and ecological consequences. Here, we investigate how three major classes of uncertainty, linguistic uncertainty, epistemic uncertainty (uncertainty about facts), and human decision uncertainty, have been accounted for in scientific literature about climate change. Some sources of uncertainty are poorly characterized and epistemic uncertainty is much more commonly treated than linguistic or human decision uncertainty. Furthermore, we show that linguistic and human decision uncertainties are relatively better treated in the literature on sociopolitics or economics than in natural sciences, which often overlook communication between stakeholders and socioeconomic consequences. As uncertainty can significantly influence implementation of conservation, we discuss uncertainties associated with some commonly proposed conservation adaptation actions to mitigate climate change. There may be major differences between strategies, with implications on how they should be viewed in conservation planning. We conclude that evaluating conservation strategies in terms of different types of uncertainty will facilitate communication between disciplines and stakeholders. While accounting for uncertainties in a quantitative manner is difficult and data demanding, even qualitative appreciation about the uncertainties inherent in conservation strategies can facilitate and improve decision making.
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Biodiversity offsets are interventions that compensate for the ecological losses caused by economic development, seeking ‘no net loss’ (NNL) of biodiversity overall. Calculating the ecological gains required to achieve NNL is non-trivial, with various methodologies available. To date, there has been no rigorous comparison among methodologies for a common case study. We use data on industrial impacts on the Ustyurt Plateau, Uzbekistan, to provide such a comparison. We quantify losses from 40 years of gas extraction, based upon empirical data gathered on vegetation impacts alongside existing estimates of disruption to mammals. In doing so, we use a novel technique which estimates spatial ‘functional forms’ for disturbance as a means for residual biodiversity impact calculation. We demonstrate that different methods for calculating the restoration activities required to offset biodiversity losses result in highly divergent outcomes. A modified version of an Australian method is currently being considered for adoption in Uzbekistan, but we show that it would require careful adjustments to achieve NNL for the Ustyurt. These findings highlight that the common NNL objective is not perceived or attained in the same way in different parts of the world. It also implies that offset methodologies are not transferable between habitats or countries, which would prove problematic for any attempt to trade biodiversity offset credits internationally. Finally, we discuss that actual conservation needs may not be best served by strict ‘like for like’ interpretations of NNL in the case of the Ustyurt, and ‘out of kind’ offsets may provide larger conservation gains.
Mining companies throughout the world often face a high socio-political risk, in particular because of their impact on the environment. A key indicator of exposure to such risk is a company׳s Social License to Operate (SLO). If a company meets its consumer, shareholders and other stakeholders׳ expectations regarding environmental management, it can gain a SLO. The SLO is an implicit contract between parties which reduces the risk of socio-political challenges to the actions of the company. Here, we apply this concept to a case study of the oil and gas sector in Western Australia, where we evaluate the strength of the SLO granted by the West Australian population to this industry. Our results suggest that, on average, people are not likely to oppose oil and gas projects, because they are economically beneficial for the State. However, it does not achieve as high an evaluation on social legitimacy. We subsequently examine whether the use of marine biodiversity offsets by the oil and gas sector influences SLO. This serves to clarify the social acceptability of offsets as tools to protect the environment. We find that the use of marine biodiversity offsets would improve the SLO of the sector.
1.Offsetting is emerging as an important but controversial approach for managing environment–development conflicts. Biodiversity offsets are designed to compensate for damage to biodiversity from development by providing biodiversity gains elsewhere.2.Here we suggest how biodiversity offset policies can generate behaviours that exacerbate biodiversity decline, and identify four perverse incentives that could arise even from soundly designed policies.3.These include incentives for (i) entrenching or exacerbating baseline biodiversity declines, (ii) winding back non-offset conservation actions, (iii) crowding out of conservation volunteerism, and (iv) false public confidence in environmental outcomes due to marketing offset actions as gains.4.Synthesis and applications. Despite its goal of improving biodiversity outcomes, there is potential for best-practice offsetting to achieve the opposite result. Reducing this risk requires coupling offset crediting baselines to measured trajectories of biodiversity change and understanding the potential interaction between offsetting and other environmental policies.This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
This report provides the status and trends of biodiversity offset and compensatory mitigation programs by geographical region. In each section, the report summarizes the total active programs and developing activities, and broad metrics like total known payments and land area protected or restored. In each region, we also analyze the characteristics of offset programs—what drives the program, how offsets are created, who the buyers and sellers are, and what the unit of credit is. Finally, we look at recent developments in nascent and existing programs in the region. The reliable, consistent and transparent information provided in this report will enable both experienced and new market participants to make more informed decisions and learn from the experience of others; ultimately allowing fair, stable and transparent conservation markets to develop. Full text available at: Also note good information available in Methods Appendix: And 2011 Update available:
Biodiversity offsets are seen as a policy mechanism to balance development and conservation goals. Many offset schemes employ habitat restoration in one area to recreate biodiversity value that is destroyed elsewhere, assuming that recovery is timely and predictable. Recent research has challenged these assumptions on the grounds that restoration implies long time delays and a low certainty of success. To investigate these assertions, and to assess the strength of empirical support for offset policy, we used a meta-analytic approach to analyze data from 108 comparative studies of secondary growth (SG) and old-growth (OG) habitat (a total of 1228 SG sites and 716 OG reference sites). We extracted species checklists and calculated standardized response ratios for species richness, Fisher's alpha, Sorenson similarity, and Morisita-Horn similarity. We modeled diversity change with habitat age using generalized linear models and multi-model averaging, correcting for a number of potential explanatory variables. We tested whether (1) diversity of passively and actively restored habitat converges to OG values over time, (2) active restoration significantly accelerates this process, and (3) current offset policies are appropriate to the predicted uncertainties and time lags associated with restoration. The results indicate that in the best case, species richness converges to OG reference values within a century, species similarity (Sorenson) takes about twice as long, and assemblage composition (Morisita-Horn) up to an order of magnitude longer (hundreds to thousands of years). Active restoration significantly accelerates the process for all indices, but the inherently large time lags, uncertainty, and risk of restoration failure require offset ratios that far exceed what is currently applied in practice. Restoration offset policy therefore leads to a net loss of biodiversity, and represents an inappropriate use of the otherwise valuable tool of ecosystem restoration.