Travelling, road construction, establishing a mine, wood harvesting, clearing fields and even building a summer house are examples of actions that degrade ecosystems and destroy biodiversity. Is it possible to limit or fully offset the damage people cause to biodiversity by restoring ecosystems elsewhere?

Ecological compensation also known as biodiversity offsetting represents a new kind of thinking in societal responsibility for the nature. It is a process by which the ecological damage caused by any human activity are compensated with ecological benefits produced elsewhere. The mechanism akin to the “polluter pays” principle: the one who causes the harm must compensate for it.

”Many seemingly small actions may locally degraded ecosystems and decrease biodiversity. Causing damage is seen as a normal result of development and is usually completely accepted,” explains Professor of Ecology Janne Kotiaho, who works to find ways to secure a better future for humanity and the whole planet. ”Often we don’t even think about the harm we cause to other species and their habitats. To make the harm visible by demanding that even minor damage to nature must be compensated would be a step towards a more sustainable way of life. For example, each construction permit could include an ecological compensation payment in order to restore weakened habitats elsewhere.”

Should compensation be obligatory?

For the first time, the 5th European Congress of Conservation Biology (ECCB2018) offered participants a chance to compensate emissions resulting from their trip to the conference with a voluntary coal compensation payment, the profits of which were used to restore a peatland area. However, the conference organisers were surprised to find that only 39 per cent of participants paid the compensation payment.

”I am slightly astonished that so few of the participants paid the voluntary compensation payment,” says Kotiaho. ”If these people, who are well aware of environmental issues and think about them as part of their work, don’t  pay voluntarily, I do not see it as very probable that the society would voluntarily start to compensate for the damage it has caused. Therefore, I think incentives and regulations are needed. I hope that our experiment starts a new era and the findings that will be published will be utilised at similar events in the future.”

Small responsible steps

The degradation of ecosystems and the decrease of biodiversity are serious threats to humanity and already now they are having harmful effects on 40% of the world’s population. Together with most countries in the world, Finland is committed to stopping the decrease of biodiversity by 2020. If we want to transform our unsustainable development towards more sustrainable one, we need new measures along with nature conservation actions.

”The most efficient means would be to include the costs of environmental harm in consumer prices,” says Kotiaho. ”If the least environmentally harmful product would also be the most inexpensive, it would be easier for consumers to change their consumption habits and behaviour. The environmental effects of consumer choices are often concealed because trade is global, and production and consumption may take place in different parts of the world.”

No pain, no gain

Kotiaho wants to inspire researchers to be active and spread information outside their universities. He also encourages making an impact on political decision-making at all levels of society.

”I want to open decision-makers’ eyes in parliament and at the level of municipalities,” Kotiaho says. ”It is time for decision-makers to act as the environmental agreements require, but every one of us must also make changes at the grassroots level. To change our consumption habits and lifestyle, we need incentives and regulation from decision-makers. As nice as voluntariness sounds, it simply seems not to be enough.”

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