Can an Algorithm Balance the Biodiversity Equation?

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Cecilia Amosso Member Name


Every greenfield project can potentially affect the biodiversity of the area. With biodiversity increasingly under threat across the globe, it is important that any unavoidable damage or losses inflicted by a project are properly counterbalanced by activities that promote ecological preservation, restoration, or improvement.

Defensible and transparent accounting methods of these biodiversity losses and gains are also becoming more important for project developers to be able to demonstrate to investors and communities that their projects will meet stringent environmental and sustainability requirements.

To demonstrate no net biodiversity loss (and preferably even a net gain), and to indicate achievement of the sustainability goals required by national legislation and financial institutions, complex calculations are needed.

The challenges of calculating offsets for large, complex projects

Although biodiversity offsetting must be a last resort, it is one of the most widely used mechanisms for addressing environmental impacts in pursuit of sustainable development outcomes. Biodiversity offsetting, done well, can be a practical way to compensate for unavoidable ecological damage by restoring or protecting habitats or species outside the project footprint.

Many projects only need to consider impacts and offsets for one or two species and types of habitat. However, for large projects (such as linear infrastructure) with footprints that span many ecological regions, habitats, and species, it is far more complex and challenging to determine the appropriateness and benefit of offsets. At this level of complexity, offsets cannot be calculated species by species or habitat by habitat. There is a notable lack of practical and rigorous accounting tools and decision-support mechanisms to assist with the selection of offsetting sites and activities.

Creating a biodiversity algorithm

Golder used an innovative biodiversity algorithm for a project that spanned an entire country involving more than 90 species, 20 habitats and 9 ecosystems and explored a new approach to calculate the residual losses from the project and the potential gains from proposed offsets. With so many species and habitats to consider, a methodology was needed that could weigh the loss of many key biodiversity features together into an aggregated value, which could then be replicated for offsets.

The biodiversity
simplifies the calculation
of biodiversity
losses and gains.
The accounting methodology Golder devised is based on an equation that calculates the biodiversity value of the species and habitats throughout the project footprint. A numerical value is assigned to each key biodiversity feature (in line with guidelines of the relevant financing or regulating body) based on its conservation importance, its pre-project level of health or degradation, and the effectiveness of the rehabilitation offset activities proposed or implemented.

The algorithm is applied in a Geographic Information System (GIS) where biodiversity values can be calculated for each patch of habitat, including the impacted areas as well as those selected as potential offset sites. Once the biodiversity values have been calculated, multiple scenarios can be run automatically to identify and explore the potential of different offsets and to clearly articulate the most sustainable and cost-effective options. This provides tangible, transparent, and defensible support for decision making, which can be used throughout a project’s planning, design, construction, and operations.

Implementing the algorithm

The methodology provides the flexibility to adapt to the context and can be used on projects large and small, at any stage, and with any level of detail. Even if the desired level of data about a biodiversity value is not yet available, the algorithm can still be run using conservative assumptions to provide a preliminary indication of the value that can be expected from an offset. As more accurate information is gathered and entered into the GIS system, assumptions can be refined and the algorithm can then be applied again, giving a more precise indication of the biodiversity gains.

Implementing the algorithm helps to demonstrate the anticipated effects of proposed offsets. With careful calculation and comparison of multiple scenarios, the algorithm enables prioritization of areas and activities in which higher gains in biodiversity value can be achieved.

The biodiversity algorithm greatly simplifies the calculation of biodiversity losses and gains and clearly identifies the offset rationales and priorities. For development projects where multiple key biodiversity features and different ecosystems are present, this fosters transparent discussion with stakeholders and greatly increases the probability of balancing the bottom line to promote positive, sustainable outcomes both for the project and the environment.

Golder’s Roberto Mezzalama (Principal), Massimo Dragan (Principal), and Dr Kyle Knopff (Associate) were contributors to the development of this methodology.

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Cecilia Amosso Member Name


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