[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1598","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"479","style":"font-size: 0.9em; width: 894px; height: 479px; margin-left: 20px; margin-right: 20px;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"894"}}]]Art by Angela Thibodeau

Anthropocene is such a new word that my word processing software keeps underlining it in red. Coined in the 1980’s but only coming into more common use now, it is becoming (unofficially so far, but there are efforts underway to make it officially so) the term used to refer to the geological period in which human activities have become the dominant influence on the Earth’s ecosystems.


And there’s no doubt we’ve arrived. Humans are indeed having a large impact on the planet – we’re changing the climate; emitting substances into water, soil and air; changing ecological processes such as global nutrient cycles; and changing land-use to suit our purposes. Many of these impacts are caused by activities that increase our human standard of living, but humans aren’t the only ones affected. Cumulatively, all these changes are having big impacts on biodiversity (most simply defined as the diversity of life on Earth, including species, populations and the genetic variation within species and populations) – and because we rely so greatly on nature and its ecosystems, those impacts in turn affect our quality of life.


Unfortunately, our impacts on biodiversity have generally not been positive ones. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet 2014(external link) report, released at the end of September, shows how humanity’s ecological footprint is growing – and how animals (vertebrate species in particular) are losing out. According to the report: "the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe is, on average, about half the size it was 40 years ago.” No group is unaffected, with freshwater species the most impacted – down 76%. While populations grow and decline and some species naturally go extinct occasionally, the current losses and rate of extinction are unprecedented in recent history.


That’s the global story, but the Canadian one isn’t much better. Within Canada, there are over 70,000 known species of plants and animals. The most recent Wild Species(external link) report prepared by Environment Canada assessed close to 12,000 of them and categorized 12% of them as “at risk” or “may be at risk”. These species are incredibly varied – the woodland caribou, the five-lined skink, the Blanding’s turtle, the sage grouse and the pale-bellied frost lichen are all threatened or endangered; others, such as the karner blue butterfly have been extirpated in Canada (i.e., can no longer be found in Canada), while still others, such as the Labrador duck, are extinct.


The dismaying part is that Canada – and indeed lots of countries – has made commitments to avoid losses like these. While there are a few, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the most comprehensive and addresses the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and access and benefit sharing of genetic resources. Canada was the first developed country to ratify the CBD in 1992, and is host to the CBD's Secretariat (in Montreal), recognizing Canada’s historical leadership on these issues. When the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development looked at Canada’s track record (external link)in protecting biodiversity, the results were far from glowing.


A major report Global Biodiversity Outlook 4(external link) released this month by the United Nations and the CBD, shows just how little progress has been made. In 2010, countries made commitments to biodiversity with 20 targets (called the Aichi Biodiversity Targets) to be met by 2020. It’s now almost halfway through that time period, but progress towards the targets has been minimal.


If progress on reversing biodiversity loss has been minimal, at least our understanding of the necessary policy measures has advanced. In particular, quite a bit of work has gone into understanding the role market-based policies can play in addressing the market failures that lie at the heart of biodiversity loss. The market failures are complex (relating to incomplete information, externalities, public goods and lack of property rights), and the size of the challenge is growing, which means we need to think creatively about those policy tools.


Today Sustainable Prosperity and the Institute of the Environment(external link) at the University of Ottawa released a policy brief(external link) that describes one tool — biodiversity offsets — which has the potential to be used to engage businesses and create markets as part of the solution to the challenges facing biodiversity. While there has been a lot of debate recently about the appropriate role for business and markets in biodiversity conservation (for example, The New Yorker’s(external link) profile of Mark Tercek and the Nature Conservancy’s collaborative approach to working with business, or George Monbiot(external link) in The Guardian arguing the shortcomings of the anthropogenic view of nature as natural capital), the reality is that in order to achieve the kind of progress needed, everyone needs to participate in finding solutions. How best to do that is the question.


At SP, we think a big part of the answer is to 1) put in place bold biodiversity conservation goals and strategies, with sufficient stringency to meet those goals (Aichi or other), 2) engage everyone in finding solutions and 3) consider all possible tools, both the traditional regulatory ones and market-based ones (in fact, we’ll probably need several of each). One of those tools might be creating policies that use markets, like biodiversity offsets (also known as conservation offsets).

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1599","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"392","style":"width: 900px; height: 392px; margin-left: 30px; margin-right: 30px;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"900"}}]]

Biodiversity offsets are not the first policy tool to turn to – in fact, according to the mitigation hierarchy, they’re generally the last tool to use. The mitigation hierarchy (see Figure 2 below, and more information in the report (external link)on when and how best to use biodiversity offsets) provides guidance that offsets are generally only to be used after the negative impacts on biodiversity have been addressed as much as possible in other ways. But there can be a role for them, as part of a larger policy suite.


In fact, they are already in use in many countries, including Canada, and have the potential to help us achieve our goals. Today’s policy brief proposes a set of 10 areas for interdisciplinary research that can help us design good biodiversity offsets polices – and thus help protect biodiversity.

It may be too late for the Labrador Duck, but it doesn’t need to be too late for the Woodland Caribou or the Sage Grouse.