Biodiversity offsets – what are the stakes?

Biodiversity offsets are meant to compensate for biodiversity damage caused by industrial development, but they are a double-edged sword. Biodiversity offsets should not be embraced by COP9 without a discussion of the risks involved and how they will relate to the rest of the CBD, particularly article 8(j) and incentives (article 11).
Biodiversity offsets can act as a perverse incentive, actually enabling biodiversity loss (companies can destroy biodiversity here and offset it there). Offsets can also undermine existing regulations such as environmental impact assessments by appeasing regulators with promises of ‘no net impact’. Offset programmes are an implicit invitation and incentive to go from risk prevention and precaution to risk management.
Moreover infrastructure projects leading to biodiversity loss typically involve struggles over land use. These projects can displace peoples and transgress human rights. How can these abuses be offset? Will aggrieved communities be compensated in ways that further violate free prior informed consent in the establishment of offset areas? How is the impact on traditional knowledge offset? Is it even possible? And who decides?

BBOP till you drop

Despite these problems, the initiative "Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme" (BBOP) has surfaced as something to be welcomed by the COP.
But the proposed BBOP itself still hasn't defined their principles and criteria. As the BBOP stated in their side event on Monday: the draft principles will be up for consultation by June, and hopefully finished some time in autumn. There are currently no clear and transparent criteria formulated about what is offsetable, and which impacts are unacceptable.
The BBOP is an exclusive partnership largely between business, government and conservation experts. BBOP’s main sponsors and partners include the Australian government, USAid, Newmont, Solid Energy, IUNC, Conservation International and the IFC.
There is also no independent assessment mechanism for reviewing offset experiences. Beyond pilot cases very little proper programme details are available on their website. So far information on the programme was only available to partners and to the advisory board. Inf-paper COP/9/Inf/29 is the first publicly available information.
So far BBOP is conducting only seven pilot projects. One of these is a mining project by Newmont in a Ghana forest reserve. An organisation familiar with this project, on the ground, reported at the BBOP side event on Monday that little information is available about the project or its criteria, and that local communities near the development have not been adequately consulted.
In sum, the concept of biodiversity offsets should not be embraced without a discussion of its risks, and the COP should not be embracing or welcoming projects they know very little about!

A. Lorch, ECO Vol. 23(7), May 2008