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Decision Point
Issue 39 / May 2010
Connecting conservation policy makers, researchers and practitioners

Smart science for wise decisions
Fighting fire with logic saving biodiversity
Page 10 Page 8

Putting planning tools to the test
Page 8

Decisions of the ethical ecologist The case for biodiversity offsets
Page 2

Decision Point
Decision Point is a monthly magazine presentingnews, views and ideas on environmental decision making, biodiversity, conservation planning and monitoring. It is produced by AEDA – the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis CERF Hub. For more info on Decision Point, or AEDA, see the back page or visit our website at

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Decision Point #39 - 1

The case for biodiversity offsets
Keep in mind the net gain and the status quo
By Phil Gibbons (ANU, AEDA)


ove them or hate them, biodiversity offsets have become an increasingly popular policy instrument in Australia in recent years. They were included as part of reforms to land clearing legislation in South Australia,Victoria and New South Wales, and the recent review of the Commonwealth’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act includes a recommendation to adopt mitigation banking (a form of biodiversity offsets). Is biodiversity better off with the introduction of offsets?

The Dpoint editorial

Introduction of offsets

According to many Australian ecologists, Biodiversity the answeris a resounding NO. In offsets are the last few years there have defined as measurable been several papers published conservation outcomes on biodiversity offsets —with resulting from actions designed an overwhelmingly negative to compensate for significant assessment. Figure 1: Areas approved for clearing in NSW residual adverse biodiversity before and after the introduction of offsets inAlthough it hasn’t all been one impacts arising from project late 2005. way. When Hugh Possingham development. reviewed the NSW BioBanking resulted in an 80% reduction in the area Business and Biodiversity Scheme in 2007 he declared that approved for clearing in rural NSW relative to it would provide a “significant Offsets Program the area approved for clearing under the previous improvement over theexisting http://bbop.forestpolicy, which did not include offsets (Figure 1). system for protecting threatened species and communities” (though he There were four reasons why the introduction of had been a trenchant critic of the scheme biodiversity offsets in NSW resulted in considerable avoided two years earlier in a debate at the Ecological loss in biodiversity. Society of Australia).Why had he, one of Australia’s leading ecological thinkers, changed his mind? Criticisms of biodiversity offsets focus on the inability of ecological restoration actions on one site to be sufficient, equivalent or timely enough to compensate for losses from development at another site. I share this view, except in the case where habitat is likely to decline or be lost irrespective of land clearing(see figure 2 on the next page). However, what the critics don’t assess is whether the introduction of biodiversity offsets results in a net gain in biodiversity outcomes relative to the status quo (see ‘Measuring true conservation progress’ in Decision Point #25). I’ll demonstrate this by using the introduction of biodiversity offsets in NSW as a case study. The assessment methodology introducedwith the NSW Native Vegetation Act in 2005—which included offsets—

1. Risk acknowledged

Clearing could only occur under the Native Vegetation Act where it ‘improved or maintained’ biodiversity outcomes. We argued that this standard could not be met if ecological communities or species that were rare or under considerable threat were cleared, even with offsets. This reflects the fact that...
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