An introduction to Biodiversity Offsets

On 31 March 2017 the Minister of Environmental Affairs published the Draft National Biodiversity Offset Policy in Government Gazette No. 40733. Once this legislation is accepted and published, the application of Biodiversity Offsets will become part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Process in South Africa.

What exactly is a Biodiversity Offset? Will it be beneficial to the EIA process? How will it impact on the developer? These and many other questions have been asked by our clients and members of the public. Bucandi has decided to publish a series of news updates to answer some of the questions that has been raised on Biodiversity Offsets (generally referred to as “Offsets”). In my personal experience I have worked in the Environmental Management industry as well as the Conservation industry. I also spend 6 years in America where Biodiversity Offsets are well established and regulated. This puts me and Bucandi in a unique position to provide insight into many of these questions.

Over the following weeks I will endeavour to give you some insight into the definition and origin of offsets, the practical implications thereof and the general principles of what offsets need to achieve. I will also give you a summary of the draft legislation as it relates to the EIA process.

So what exactly is a Biodiversity Offset?

The broad idea of an offset is to trade ecological damage in one area for preservation of biodiversity in another area. When it becomes unavoidable that a development will cause irreversible ecological damage, it may be allowed under specific circumstances and the negative effect can be counterbalanced by a positive ecological action elsewhere. This is by no means a “licence to trash”. When offsets becomes part of the EIA process it will fit in right at the end of the “mitigation hierarchy” (see figure attached). The mitigation hierarchy will be explained in more detail in a following update. In short it means that after all efforts were made to avoid environmental impacts, mitigate unavoidable impacts and restore any impacts that could not be avoided or mitigated, the impact that remains need to be addressed through an offset. All these mitigation efforts combined should result in “no net loss” of biodiversity.

Why are offsets being implemented in South Africa?

South Africa is considered the third most biologically diverse country in the world. It contains approximately 10% of the world’s plant species, 7% of the world’s mammals, birds and reptiles as well as 3 of the world’s 34 declared biodiversity hotspots. However, according to the latest National Biodiversity Assessment, most of the country’s ecosystems are not adequately protected and many are in a critically endangered state. Since South Africa also has a population of over 57 million people (2018 statistics), with roughly 55% living in poverty (2016 statistics), human activities and development are considered the main threats to biodiversity. Grassland, fynbos and forests are the biomes that have been most affected by development over the years.

Over the past few decades offsets have grown in popularity worldwide. They originated in developed countries such as the USA, Canada, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and the UK and later spread to developing countries including Uganda, China, Russia, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia and Argentina. They have been used in South Africa for at least a decade, but without formal regulatory guidance.

Offsets provides a workable solution where development will have an unavoidable impact on biodiversity. However, as a tool for environmental management, it is still in its infancy in South Africa.

In the following weeks we will also look at the goals, principles and models for offsets, some examples of applications and the legislation as it will be enacted in South Africa. If you would like to know more about offsets and how it can apply to your development, please don’t hesitate to contact Bucandi with your questions.


1. Midgley, D. 2015. Biodiversity offsets – towards an effective legal framework in South Africa. LLM Environmental Law Thesis. University of Cape Town

2. De Witt, M. 2015. A critical analysis of biodiversity offsets in South Africa. M. Sc. Environmental Management Thesis. North-West University.


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