BIODIVERSITY OFFSETS AT THE UPPER HUNTER: PROMISE AND REALITY – THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY WE HAVE BEEN TOLD

First, let me tell you a story in my own way…

Once upon a time, in a little town called the Upper Hunter, nature and people coexisted in harmony. Everything people had needed to survive and thrive was provided by nature. In exchange, people jealously took care of nature and it was respect, the essence of their true stewardship.

Time passed and one day, a powerful giant – also called ‘the mining industry’ – moved to town, offering to use nature to provide such a great wealth and opportunities that people just could not say no. But something went wrong and people, who once operated under the laws of nature, realised nature was being forced to operate according to the laws of capital. Nature was in danger, its resources were being irretrievably jeopardised. It was clear that when nature would finally be forced to file for bankruptcy, not only the giant but the whole town were going to suffer the consequences.

Never before had they been so utterly ineffective, so seemingly indifferent in the face of a future being mortgaged away because they had refused to acknowledge how much their long term subsistence was linked to the health of nature. Never before had the fates and responsibilities of the giant and the people been as intertwined. Something needed to be done.

To be continued…

ChawnerAHunter

Allan Chawner, Upper Hunter region, Coal Mine

Reality check: Mining opportunities are very difficult to forego

The billions in capital investment poured into mining companies in the Hunter Region over the past years leave no doubt that production will continue to grow. The expected expansion in coal mining activity over the next 20–30 years will imply new mining proposals that will continue to change the natural environment and compromise the ecosystem services it provides. Hence, projects need to be carefully evaluated to ensure biodiversity such as the nationally listed threatened species and endangered ecological communities of the region will be protected.

Biodiversity offsets

They represent an increasingly popular yet controversial tool that aims to protect and conserve species in one place to compensate for negative impacts in another. Their growing acceptance lies in their potential to meet the objectives of biodiversity conservation and of economic development all together, while the contentious polemic lies in the need to accept ecological losses in return for uncertain gains.

For the Upper Hunter mining companies in particular, biodiversity offsets represent a potential opportunity to demonstrate good environmental stewardship, promote their corporate social responsibility and manage regulatory risks.

We really need to get this right

While biodiversity offsets can present us with a number of appealing benefits, we need to recognize that this is not a magic bullet to suddenly override and bust every development constraint. Instead, it is a commitment to a new way of thinking. It has challenges and there are certainly pitfalls but at the same time, where mining opportunities are difficult to forego and the mitigation hierarchy options have been exhausted, this will be the only way to make up for unavoidable residual impacts.

But, where are we so far?

A research I recently conducted, where I analysed case by case each of the twenty-five coal mining companies in the Upper Hunter Valley regarding their impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services and their current mitigation strategies, showed that the mining industry is taking steps to mitigate their impacts and that biodiversity offset schemes are increasingly being used to gain operation permits or maintain licenses, although its methodologies and the overriding conceptual framework are still under development.

Should we rely then on offsetting to make up for biodiversity loss due to mining?

My study demonstrated that biodiversity offsetting has been inconsistent in meeting conservation objectives because of substantial challenges (e.g. ensuring effective measurement of ‘no-net-loss’, adequate monitoring, full compliance) and because of conceptual flaws in the approach itself.

Even the most outstanding and ambitious biodiversity offset projects are underpinned by poor science when it comes to quantifying losses and gains, as demonstrated in a recent and thorough article published in the Journal of Environmental Management.

For instance, Mount Pleasant mine, owned by Coal & Allied, proposes an offset ratio of over 5 to 1 to compensate for the area of woodland and grassland to be cleared with the project, and an offset ratio close to 13 to 1 to compensate for the fauna woodland habitat to be impacted. Another example is Anvil Hill mine, owned by Xstrata, proposing the conservation of 4100 hectares of trees to offset the clearing of 1304 hectares of good quality native treed vegetation (offset ratio 3:1). Similarly, Drayton mine, owned by AngloAmerican, proposes an offset ratio of over 2:1 for both, its Southern and Northern offset areas.

Those outcomes seem like a win-win situation. However, the problem with just focusing on the number of hectares involved or the offset ratio is that this simplistic measure reveals nothing about the true benefits of the offset. An expert on this field states: ‘You could preserve 1000 hectares of forest while 1 hectare is destroyed elsewhere, which sounds impressive. But if those 1000 hectares were going to stay standing anyway, all you’re left with is a net loss of 1 hectare’.

Therefore, while the project can have an outwardly, marvellous, and even noble goal, if an overall net gain is to be created, critical parameters such as biodiversity attributes, counterfactual scenarios, leakage risks and effectiveness need to be addressed in a larger and more transparent, science-based framework to capture the much more complex nature of biodiversity, particularly in highly biodiverse regions such as the Upper Hunter.

The big question right now is how do we actually get the bigger and better of this?

While the current debate is focusing either on enabling regulatory frameworks or on appropriate science-based methods, I would dare myself to say LEADERSHIP… Yes, Leadership has to come first, and by this I mean a long-term vision and the ability to have confidence and commitment to that long-term vision.

It needs leadership from governments to delineate the path. There needs to be clear national standards, policy certainty, and particularly, a clear national regulatory framework that drives innovation, investment and commitment. Unless an agreed and workable framework of principles and administrative arrangements can be sorted out, then it is likely that offsets will fail to deliver, and will be seen as inequitable, unreasonable and a method to facilitate development that has unacceptable impacts on biodiversity, or in other words, as a license to trash nature.

It also needs leadership from the mining industry to boldly lead the way, dare and innovate, and to see that actually in the long-term this will be an enduring sustainable return for their investors, allowing them not only to gain approvals, but to keep their social licenses and demonstrate environmental stewardship while generating wealth and opportunities for the company and the communities.

It needs leadership from scientists to ensure a transparent and science-based process that goes beyond simplistic measurements and tears down the fence of the status quo. Research needs to redouble efforts, improve the design and find ways to deliver biodiversity gains that are genuine, additional, permanent, and fair. Unless the scientific community ensures that offsets truly deliver on their promised ecological performance, the likely outcome will only be an expansion of ‘paper offsets’.

And of course, it needs leadership from communities not only to promote, participate and enrich the dialogue, but to make sure government and mining companies are playing their parts. Unless communities translate their distress, suspicion, distrust and sense of powerlessness for not having a sit on the decision-making table into initiatives to proactively contribute at every stage of the offsetting process, they will risk losing the commodity they are most reliant upon, by which I mean the uniqueness of their biodiversity and consequently their ecosystem services.

So, back to the story on the beginning, what do you think that happens next?

It is up to us to write the last chapter. Whether you work in politics, economics, conservation, science, or communities… have we forgotten what first led us to where we are now? It was passion… and it is passion that drives vision, ignites others, raises influence and generates change. It was the faith, emotion and conviction from knowing that our actions would contribute to a better tomorrow. So I encourage you to join me and walk our talk, and in doing so, governments, industry and communities will trust, engage and join us for action. At the end of the day, success in conserving our most valuable asset (biodiversity) will have meant that we had the courage, determination, and will to stand up for what we cared and loved. So again, leadership is how we begin if we are going to build a natural capital on which the wealth of the Hunter depends.

By Joshelyn Paredes

 

 

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