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The many meanings of no net loss in environmental policy


‘No net loss’ is a buzz phrase in environmental policy. Applied to a multitude of environmental targets such as biodiversity, wetlands and land productive capacity, no net loss (NNL) and related goals have been adopted by multiple countries and organizations, but these goals often lack clear reference scenarios: no net loss compared to what? Here, we examine policies with NNL and related goals, and identify three main forms of reference scenario. We categorize NNL policies as relating either to overarching policy goals, or to responses to specific impacts. We explore how to resolve conflicts between overarching and impact-specific NNL policies, and improve transparency about what NNL-type policies are actually designed to achieve.

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M.M. is supported by Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship FT141000516. A.G. was supported by ARC Discovery Project DP150103122. F.Q. benefited from funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n8 308393 ‘OPERAs’ and the CoForSet project funded by the French Fondation pour la Recherche sur la Biodiversité. M.C.E. and this project were supported by the Australian Department of the Environment National Environmental Research Programme through the Threatened Species Recovery Hub. We thank H. Levrel and A.-C. Vaissière for useful comments on US policies and E. Bayraktarov for assistance with English translations of policy documents.

Author information

All authors developed the concepts. M.M. developed the initial idea and led the writing. All authors contributed experience and perspectives on reference scenarios, drawing from their familiarity with many offsets and NNL-type policies. A.G. led the section on type 1 and type 2 impacts.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Martine Maron.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Examples of potential trends in focal natural capital resulting from the implementation of NNL policies.
Fig. 2: Reviewed overarching and impact-specific policies with stated NNL or similar goals mapped against their specified or effective reference scenario.
Fig. 3: Components of the cost of achieving an overarching reference scenario that constitutes a favourable target.