Biodiversity offsets in EIA: Getting the timing right
School of Science / Centre for Ecosystem Management
Major developments can result in significant impacts on biodiversity, which the mandated process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) aims to mitigate. There has been a recent move towards the application of biodiversity offsets as a last-resort, compensatory measure when options at the earlier stages in the mitigation hierarchy of avoidance, minimisation and restoration have been exhausted. Guidance on biodiversity offset planning available in different jurisdictions, however, demonstrates a lack of consensus about when biodiversity offsets should be formally introduced into the EIA process, and previous research has highlighted the perceived risks associated with commencing detailed offset planning too early as well as too late. Here we explore the implications of how and when offset considerations are introduced within EIA. We do this by reviewing and synthesising best practice principles for biodiversity offsets from the international literature, and then exploring how and when offsets were considered in a number of case studies that draw on documentary analysis and interviews with key role players. Our case studies are based in South Africa where regional guidance on offsets exists, supporting a body of practice. The research finds that the timing of involvement of biodiversity specialists is critical in determining whether considering offsets early will reap the combined benefits of: transparency and stakeholder engagement; guaranteeing the offset before development commences; and offset enforceability without jeopardising adherence to the mitigation hierarchy. Bypassing the mitigation hierarchy was perceived as allowing proponents to ‘buy’ approvals for developments that might otherwise be found unacceptable, although there was no evidence for this in any of the case studies evaluated. Although some of our findings may be specific to the South African context, the approach taken using international best practice principles for biodiversity offsets as a benchmark can equally be applied to evaluate practice in other EIA systems. We confirm the utility of this approach by evaluating the recently released South African Draft National Biodiversity Offset Policy for its potential to support best practice biodiversity offsets in EIA.