Community acceptance of marine biodiversity offsets in Australia: a pilot study

Biodiversity offsets are used to account for environmental damages caused by development. In Australia, there are offset policies operating at the State and Commonwealth Government levels. An offset policy becomes relevant when residual environmental damages are likely to result from a proposed development; that is, when damages are likely to remain after all avoidance and mitigation measures have been undertaken. In such a case, the proponent must propose to offset the residual damages by protecting or improving equivalent environmental matter elsewhere. In theory, this should result in no net loss to the environment. If the proponent can reasonably show that the proposed offset will avoid a net loss, then the development may be considered for approval. 

The relevant State offset policy applies to any residual environmental damages resulting from development (e.g. Government of Western Australia 2011). In addition, if a matter of national environmental significance is affected, the Commonwealth’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act Offset Policy also applies (Australian Government 2012). Matters of national environmental significance include species listed as threatened or migratory under the EPBC Act.

The EPBC Offset Policy was released in 2012, following a period of comment on a draft version of the policy. In drafting and revising this policy, the science and economic efficiencies of offsetting were addressed. However, little is known about the social acceptability of biodiversity offsets. If offsets are to become common practice in environmental management and policy, it is important that they are designed in a way that satisfies the scientific, economic and social dimensions. This study will examine the preferences of the Australian community with respect to how marine biodiversity offsets are implemented. In particular, community reaction to the following policy characteristics (or attributes) are of interest:

  • the proportion of direct versus indirect  offset; 
  • the type of offset activity;
  • the location of the offset, relative to the development site;
  • the species protected by the offset;
  • the implementer of the offset; or,
  • whether co-benefits are likely to result from the offset.
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