Offsetting biodiversity: risks and opportunities

- EN - IT
The impoverishment of our ecosystems due to unregulated land development and pollution is a critical issue that has gained significant importance. This is especially relevant because countries worldwide are striving to counteract the loss of biodiversity that results from the exploitation of our planet’s resources. Various strategies provide the necessary tools to preserve the balance of ecosystems, such as the so-called Biodiversity Offsetting,  which aims to offset the loss of biodiversity caused by human activities by implementing actions that favour nature. Ludovico G. Conti, a doctoral candidate in environmental ethics at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, under the supervision of Prof Peter Seele, explores this very topic in his two recent articles "Buying Biodiversity? An overview of offsetting", published for Bollettino della Società Ticinese di Scienze Naturali, and " Upsetting offsetting? Nathan the Wise’s ring parable and three reasons why not to adopt the carbon offsetting logic to biodiversity ", published in the prestigious scientific journal AMBIO.

Globally, several biodiversity offsetting schemes have emerged that address the degradation of ecosystems, particularly those related to development projects that impact the environment. Market transaction-based mechanisms have been developed to offer more ecologically and economically efficient solutions. These mechanisms work by purchasing "habitat credits", which can be used to implement conservation actions in areas that are outside the location where the environmental impact occurs. 

Ludovico, can you briefly explain what "biodiversity offsetting" is and how it developed?

Biodiversity offsetting is an economic tool that aims to conserve and protect biodiversity. It is a last resort after attempting to avoid, minimise, and restore environmental damage caused by anthropogenic (man-made) actions, mainly infrastructural and urban development. The idea is straightforward: the damage caused to biodiversity can be compensated for by biodiversity measures. In mathematical terms, the idea is that a destroyed unit of biodiversity can be compensated for by the creation of a new unit. The ultimate aim is to have no net loss of biodiversity and even achieve net gains in benefits.
Briefly: the concept of offsetting developed in the late 1960s, coinciding with the growing ecological awareness in the American political landscape. However, it was not until the early 1970s, with the Ramsar Convention (Iran, 1972), that this tool began to be discussed internationally. Its adoption then gained momentum towards the end of the 1980s, thanks to significant documents such as the Brundtland Report (1987) and the visibility given to it by international organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and became particularly relevant at the beginning of the new millennium, when the United Nations introduced the concept of "ecosystem service".

What is the relationship between biodiversity offsetting and carbon offsetting?

Although both tools use an accounting logic, in a recent article published in AMBIO, Prof. Seele and I argued that the transposition of the compensatory logic of carbon offsetting to biodiversity offsetting is problematic. This is because, while carbon offsetting may be independent of where it is produced, the same cannot be said for biodiversity and biodiversity loss, which are geolocalised problems: a Swiss alpine ecosystem is different from one in the Amazon. Therefore, the article explains how trading one ecosystem for another is complex and ethically questionable.

What are the risks, if any, in using biodiversity offsetting? 

There are two types of risks, which are practical and ethical. The lack of monitoring of the development of offsetting projects and difficulties due to the lack of agreed standards in assessing the effectiveness of projects are some of the practical problems highlighted in the literature. On the other hand, from an ethical point of view, one of the problems is the allocation of benefits and disadvantages of compensation projects, which may not be distributed fairly across time and space. Allow me to clarify further: Suppose the forest behind your house is cut down to construct a new shopping centre. By law, the entrepreneur must minimise their impact on the ecosystem with compensation for biodiversity. However, if the entrepreneur replants the forest in another country for economic reasons, the benefits of the compensation, i.e., the new forest, would benefit those residents instead of those who suffered the environmental damage. Alternatively, if the entrepreneur replants trees near the ecosystem they destroyed, there is a temporal mismatch between those who receive the benefits of compensation and those who suffer the damage. In fact, only future generations would see a forest as lush as the one that was cut down. These two examples highlight the serious ethical implications of biodiversity offsetting, which must be explored before employing this practice.

Can one speak of biodiversity washing?

Yes, it is a possibility, and increasingly so. To explain why, however, it is first necessary to clarify precisely what one means by biodiversity washing. Biodiversity washing (a concept still in an embryonic state from an academic point of view) originates from the better-known notion of greenwashing, i.e. the communication practice that aims to promote a misleading image of eco-sustainability that has no real correspondence with the facts. Similarly, biodiversity washing is the discrepancy between "saying" and "doing" in favour of biodiversity. 

So why is there a risk of biodiversity washing? Because, due to the technical problems that have been found, such as the inability to monitor the effectiveness of projects, there is the possibility that some companies (voluntarily or involuntarily) use and publicise the practice of offsetting without actually compensating for the damage they have caused. This creates a discrepancy between what is said and what is done. Although this occurrence is still limited, the recent Verra scandal (­nvironment­/2023/jan/­18/reveale­d-forest-c­arbon-offs­ets-bigges­t-provider­-worthless­-verra-aoe ) in the world of carbon offsetting underlines how the problem of "phantom" offsetting is real and needs to be solved not only for the more famous carbon offsetting but also for biodiversity offsetting.

What does your study focus on? What is the focus of your research?

My theoretical research is focused on the ethical analysis of the practice of biodiversity offsetting. Rather than examining how this tool should be used, I am exploring whether it should and can be used at all. I begin by assuming the feasibility of the practice, which is generally accepted by its supporters. However, I question whether there are any inherent ethical issues associated with it. To answer this question, I delve into the complex relationship between humans and nature.

While dedicating time to theoretical research, your commitment to the fight against the climate crisis is not limited to your doctorate; in fact, you are also president of a young environmental association in Ticino. Can you tell us about it?

It all started with a discussion among friends and a simple observation: although many people talk about climate change, few really know what it is, what the causes and consequences are. We therefore decided to try to fill this gap, especially among the younger generation and our peers, because - even though we did not cause the crisis we are currently experiencing - we are already suffering its consequences. So, in November 2022, with four friends, we founded IAMCLIMATE, a locally active environmental association that is committed to the scientific dissemination of the climate crisis. The main project is Ecoligia: a travelling suitcase containing a travel diary and teaching materials designed to provide teachers with various aids to explain to primary school children the complex issue of the environmental crisis and its consequences on our territory. The material provided, such as games and stories, supports teachers in explaining climate change in simple terms. This local project has won the prestigious international Arge Alp 2022 award (grassroots section) and, to date, has already "travelled" to eight Ticino school sites, enjoying great success among the young pupils, as can be seen from the Ecoligia diary.