Is it possible to achieve a no net loss of biodiversity while economic development continues? Biodiversity offsets are often promoted as an innovative and powerful tool for achieving such an aspiring goal. The strategy holds the potential not only to maintain ecosystem and biodiversity services in scenarios where development results in negative residual impacts, but it also can help put value on environmental assets that historically have been externalities. In today’s complex world, however, implementing biodiversity offsets that deliver what they promise is soaked in complexity and challenges.

Biodiversity offsets are becoming increasingly common across a variety of settings: national policies, voluntary programs, international lending, and corporate business structures. With its proliferation have come strong critiques, some of which are justified as biodiversity offsets have often underperformed. Given the diversity of ecological, political, and socio-economic systems where offsets may be applied, the successful design and implementation of a biodiversity offset program is a complex endeavor.

One question connected to the performance of biodiversity offsets is related to research: are researchers tackling the diversity of important issues and challenges to inform successful program design? ACS recently published a paper in the journal Ambio that sheds light on this important question. We reviewed the offset research literature with the goal of assessing the gaps and needs for improving the design of biodiversity offset programs.

The good news is that research on biodiversity offsets is growing rapidly. The bad news is that it is largely focused on a single system in a single country: wetlands in the United States. The other bad news is that it is heavily dominated by ecological theory. Why are these findings bad news? Because the majority of offset programs are occurring in developing countries within a diversity of ecosystems, and where understanding social and political factors are as, or more, important than ecological factors for designing successful programs. A one size fits all approach to biodiversity offsets is likely to fail. Rather, place-based research is needed for success, along with guiding principles and methodologies that assure best practice.

A) Number of biodiversity offset publications and the countries where they are focused. B) Countries which policies or regulations potentially enable biodiversity offsets (yellow), and countries where opportunities might exist for biodiversity offsets within the impact assessment framework (orange).

A) Number of biodiversity offset publications and the countries where they are focused. B) Countries which policies or regulations potentially enable biodiversity offsets (yellow), and countries where opportunities might exist for biodiversity offsets within the impact assessment framework (orange).

While the research gaps and biases we detected present a number of risks, they also represent an opportunity to better inform biodiversity offset program design. We propose creating regionally-based learning platforms focused on the design and execution of offset programs, starting with pilot projects and institutional capacity building. For example, many South American countries (e.g., Colombia, Peru, and Chile) are in the process of reforming their environmental policies to operationalize biodiversity offset mechanisms. Within their economies, those same countries face similar environmental challenges (e.g., mining and energy generation), where offsets have some potential to reduce environmental impacts. Regionally-based learning platforms on the design and execution of offset policies and programs that span multiple countries would likely improve outcomes.

Given the growing interest of biodiversity offset programs and the current research gaps, scientific research needs to diversify significantly in order to support the design of successful programs and maximize the utility of offsets to contribute to biodiversity conservation.

Stefan Gelcich, Camila Vargas, María Jose Carreras, Juan Carlos Castilla, and C. Josh Donlan. 2016. Achieving biodiversity benefits with offsets: Research gaps, challenges, and needs. Ambio. doi:10.1007/s13280-016-0810-9

Download a copy of the paper here.