Using biodiversity offset policies for climate-adaptive conservation

Jan McDonald (1) Anita Foerster (2), Phillipa McCormack (3)

(1) Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania, Tasmania 7053,
(2) Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania, Tasmania 7053,
(3) Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania, Tasmania 7053,

Biodiversity offset policies have become a major part of environmental impact assessment and development approval regimes in Australia and internationally. The Commonwealth and every state and Territory has a legal or policy regime governing the use of offsets, intended to compensate for the residual impacts of development once efforts have been made to avoid or minimise impacts. Most schemes aim to ensure “no net loss” of biodiversity, by requiring restoration or protection of ecologically-equivalent sites. The ecological equivalence goal has often proved difficult to achieve in practice, or results in a fragmented set of small sites with little prospect for long-term connectivity. Offsets have sometimes been approved for sites of lower conservation value because they are cheaper or more readily available. Some jurisdictions have moved away from the ecological equivalence standard altogether, either to relax offsetting requirements for developers or to attempt a more strategic approach. Some of these strategic initiatives involve establishment of a fund to purchase sites identified as strategically important for bioregional conservation planning. There is an opportunity for well-designed and well-resourced offsets regimes to promote adaptive conservation planning, by helping to secure, restore, manage or establish sites of future conservation value under changing climatic conditions. New approaches to offsets will need to address past failures in design and implementation, and embrace the new conservation paradigm emerging from understanding of climate change impacts.