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No net loss: can development projects offset damage to biodiversity by boosting nature elsewhere?

The golden mantella frog, found in Madagascar, is one animal that the No Net Loss policy of the Ambatovy Mine Development Project seeks to protect The golden mantella frog, found in Madagascar, is one animal that the No Net Loss policy of the Ambatovy Mine Development Project seeks to protect
13 Aug
'No Net Loss' policies aim to offset ecological damage caused by development projects, but trade-offs are not always successful

Workers at the Ambatovy Mine in Madagascar produce nearly 60,000 tonnes of refined nickel and 5,600 tonnes of refined cobalt a year. The owners ‘offset’ the resulting damage to biodiversity by investing in conservation and outreach programmes across the island. Likewise, the Bujagali Hydropower Project in Uganda protects the Kalagala Falls region and key forest areas in the Nile Bank, to compensate for any operational damage. 

So-called ‘no net loss’ (NNL) policies attempt to make up for ecological damage caused by development projects by investing in biodiversity gains elsewhere, or through restoration projects. But is the idea the future of safeguarding biodiversity, or merely a buzz phrase in environmental policy?

The lemurs of Madagascar in the Ambatovy Mine Forest areas benefit from biodiversity offsetsThe Ambatovy Mine Project designates forest conservation areas in Madagascar where lemur populations are protected

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Some 108 countries have, or are developing, NNL policies. To keep track, Joseph Bull, senior lecturer in conservation science at the University of Kent, is working with a team of researchers to compile the Global Inventory of Biodiversity Offset Policies (GIBOP). They have identified 12,983 projects extending over 153,679 square kilometres – an area larger than Greece – though 43 per cent of this land comes from three large projects: The Oyu Tolgoi Mine in Mongolia, Uatuma Biological Reserve in Brazil (compensating for the Balbina hydropower plant) and Saigachy reserve in Uzbekistan (compensating for multiple extraction projects). ‘Biodiversity offsets are being implemented very quickly despite being quite a recent policy idea,’ says Bull. ‘For the first time, we now have a dataset that can and will be used by two hundred countries to refine NNL policies, seeking to protect our natural environment.’

The question of whether such projects are effective is an open one. Environmental researchers modelling NNL policies have found practical problems. Laura Sonter and her team at the University of Queensland used spatial simulation models to evaluate projects compensating for loss of natural vegetation at four sites: the Brigalow Belt in Australia, the Iron Quadrangle in Brazil, East Kalimantan in Indonesia, and Cabo Delgado in Mozambique. When they programmed their models with biodiversity offsets typical of NNL policies, no approach fully achieved ‘no net loss’, and biodiversity losses always exceeded gains made. ‘Achieving NNL of biodiversity will require companies to secure and protect large amounts of land. In some places, sufficient land may not be available to reach NNL,’ says Sonter.

Is it sustainable and ethical for development projects, such as mineral mining in Africa, to offset damage caused to biodiversity by boosting it elsewhere?Is it sustainable and ethical for development projects, such as mineral mining in Africa, to offset damage caused to biodiversity by boosting it elsewhere?

Ethical concerns have also been raised. Can losses and gains in the living world really be traded to suit economic targets? Plus, what happens to the livelihoods of local people reliant on biodiversity?

The Ambatovy Mine Project implements ambitious NNL policies by supporting the conservation of threatened species, such as lemurs and the golden mantella frog. However, researchers argue that rural communities bear the cost of the mine’s development, without receiving adequate compensation for their loss of livelihoods. Other projects do take into account the needs of locals. The Bujagali Hydropower Project in Uganda compensates communities with agricultural packages. The project even relocated river ‘spirits’ alongside community leaders, honouring cultural connections with the land.

Despite difficulties, Bull thinks that NNL policies that balance social, economic, and ecological values will be critical: ‘To incorporate social values into policies, we really have to pay attention to people. The point of NNL policies is to navigate through trade-offs – it’s not just about creating offsets, it’s about finding a way when there’s a difficult trade-off between human development and environmental protection. NNL policies will be hugely influential in future environmental decision making.’

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