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Offsets a good way to curb eco loss

12 February 2013 - 02:27 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

If you think of the environment in economic terms, you can view the wealth of our natural assets like a company does a balance sheet.

A strong balance sheet gives us the clean air, fresh water and healthy soils we need to sustain life. But the balance sheet gets steadily depleted by each new mine, highway or port, which impacts on yet another rare species or endangered ecosystem. Eventually we will have depleted our assets beyond the point at which they can renew themselves or sustain life.

So I have been watching with some interest the growth in biodiversity offsets. The principle behind these offsets is that, for any development, there should be no net loss in our natural assets. If the effects of a development on a particular environment cannot be prevented, then the developer is obliged to invest in restoring a natural environment of equivalent biodiversity value somewhere else.

A classic example is mining, which pollutes watercourses and damages the ability of wetlands to store water and provide sanctuary to a wide array of species. For some years now the mining companies on the Highveld have been doing offsets for the wetlands that they affect. These have been brokered by the Working for Wetlands programme under the SA National Biodiversity Institute. A team of scientists has developed ways to measure environmental impact and calculate the equivalent area of wetland that would have to be rehabilitated to compensate for its loss.

For instance, the rehabilitated wetland needs to be in the same catchment and have a similar biodiversity profile.

Of course, offsets are no substitute for avoiding environmental damage in the first place. But, when such impacts cannot be avoided, they provide a solution to this steady loss of our natural assets. Every project that affects the environment should have an offset obligation placed on it. This would create a vibrant market for trade in offsets and would ensure a steady flow of resources into community-based environmental projects. It would also mean no net loss to natural assets.

The National Biodiversity Institute has been doing research into how such a system would work on a large scale, and there are moves to establish a regulatory framework. This could have a profound effect on environmental management. The National Development Plan makes mention of the potential of such a system.

Let's hope something comes of this initiative.