Goals and principles of offsetting

In this issue I would like to continue our discussion on Biodiversity Offsetting and specifically focus on the principles of offsets and where it fits into Environmental Management in South Africa.

The main goal of offsets is to achieve “no net loss” of biodiversity. Any loss that is caused by an activity should be offset with a gain in order to achieve this target. This also means that a biodiversity offset should last at least for as long as the environmental harm lasts. Construction and infrastructure development generally cause permanent damage and therefore the offset should in most cases last in perpetuity. In many cases offsets would occur in a different habitat than the impact, which makes the calculation of the offset required a very contentious and difficult issue. This is aggravated by the fact that one is trading “certain losses” for “uncertain gains”. To better address and regulate the practicality of offsets 11 principles have been identified that have to be considered when designing an offset plan.

1. Adherence to the mitigation hierarchy – offsetting is always the final step.

2. It should result in net gain or no net loss.

3. It should be focused on long-term outcome.

4. Transparency and stakeholder participation – it will only be successful if all participants commit to the offset.

5. Offsets should follow landscape and ecosystem approach – it has to be compatible with the surrounding land use and ecosystem and not just focus on conservation of one aspect.

6. Limits to what can be offset – this relates to the level of transformation of the habitat.

7. Offset should be guaranteed before activity starts – this is done in a formal offset plan.

8. Additionality – it should preferably add on to existing biodiversity conservation.

9. Like for like – it is preferable to offset similar type and quality of habitat.

10. Offset is enforceable – this would happen if an offset is included in an Environmental Authorisation for a project.

11. Cumulative, direct and indirect impacts should be considered – this takes a wider look at the impacts of a proposed development and not just what would occur on the effected site itself.

The best way to ensure that these principles are put into practice, would be to include the design of offsets as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for a planned project. Offsets can be recommended by anyone involved in the EIA although it is most likely to be recommended or introduced by the consultant responsible for managing the EIA process whose task it is to ensure impacts are minimised. It can also be requested by the authority responsible for granting authorisation for the project proposal. The consultant responsible for the EIA would be best suited to judge the need for an offset. This will mean implementation of the mitigation hierarchy. In other words, once the possible impacts of a proposed development have been identified, the consultant will first determine which impacts can be completely avoided. Mitigation measures will then be designed to combat the effects of the impacts that can’t be avoided. After mitigation, certain impacts will still have an effect and this effect should be restored as far as possible through the design and implementation of a rehabilitation plan. Once all these steps have been taken, if there are still impacts remaining, these should be addressed in the design of an offset plan.

In the next addition we will discuss the existing legislation regarding offsets in South Africa and look at a few case studies where it has been implemented with varying levels of success. If you would like more information regarding offsets or any other environmental management questions, please feel free to contact our office any time.


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