Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Analysis
  • Published:

The politics of biodiversity offsetting across time and institutional scales


Biodiversity offsetting—actions aimed to produce biodiversity gains to compensate for development impacts—has become an important but controversial instrument of sustainability governance. To understand how this occurred, we conducted a discourse analysis, iteratively applying a qualitative coding system to 197 policy documents produced between 1958 and 2019 across four institutional scales. We show that offsetting has historically been promoted by reformist approaches, which encourage economic growth without consideration of biocultural limits. More recently, those promoting more transformative approaches have reinterpreted offsetting as an instrument to transition towards sustainable economies respectful of planetary boundaries. However, we show that enacting this approach requires major structural governance changes that challenge the dominance of reformist coalitions across scales. Such changes would need to include a commitment by institutions to renounce non-essential projects and avoid damage and for offset stakeholders to become aware of how their contributions become enrolled in the service of specific discourses. Without such changes, offsetting risks structurally encouraging conservationists to produce natures compatible with a status quo development, rather than to advance transformative practices for biocultural diversity.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Schematic representation of the dissemination of environmental discourses and their influence on offsetting through time and across scales.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

The texts used in our analysis are presented in the Supplementary Data 2. All the texts were publicly available at the time of the analysis; however, most academic publications are behind journal paywalls. Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to the corresponding author.


  1. Bull, J. W., Gordon, A., Watson, J. E. M. & Maron, M. Seeking convergence on the key concepts in ‘no net loss’ policy. J. Appl. Ecol. 53, 1686–1693 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Maron, M. et al. The many meanings of no net loss in environmental policy. Nat. Sustain 1, 19–27 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bull, J. W. & Strange, N. The global extent of biodiversity offset implementation under no net loss policies. Nat. Sustain 1, 790–798 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. von Hase, A. & ten Kate, K. Correct framing of biodiversity offsets and conservation: a response to Apostolopoulou & Adams. Oryx 51, 32–34 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Standard on Biodiversity Offsets (BBOP, Forest Trends, 2012).

  6. Zu Ermgassen, S. O. S. E. et al. The ecological outcomes of biodiversity offsets under “no net loss” policies: a global review. Conserv. Lett. (2019).

  7. Moreno-Mateos, D., Maris, V., Béchet, A. & Curran, M. The true loss caused by biodiversity offsets. Biol. Conserv. 192, 552–559 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bonneuil, C. Tell me where you come from, I will tell you who you are: a genealogy of biodiversity offsetting mechanisms in historical context. Biol. Conserv. 192, 485–491 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Boon, P. I. & Prahalad, V. Ecologists, economics and politics: problems and contradictions in applying neoliberal ideology to nature conservation in Australia. Pac. Conserv. Biol. 23, 115–132 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Penca, J. Marketing the market: the ideology of market mechanisms for biodiversity conservation. Transnatl Environ. Law 2, 235–257 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Lapeyre, R., Froger, G. & Hrabanski, M. Biodiversity offsets as market-based instruments for ecosystem services? From discourses to practices. Ecosyst. Serv. 15, 125–133 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hackett, R. Market-based environmental governance and public resources in Alberta, Canada. Ecosyst. Serv. 15, 174–180 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Zero Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (CBD, 2020).

  14. Feindt, P. H. & Oels, A. Does discourse matter? Discourse analysis in environmental policy making. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 7, 161–173 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Leipold, S., Feindt, P. H., Winkel, G. & Keller, R. Discourse analysis of environmental policy revisited: traditions, trends, perspectives. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 21, 445–463 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Hajer, M. & Versteeg, W. A decade of discourse analysis of environmental politics: achievements, challenges, perspectives. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 7, 175–184 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Bacchi, C. & Goodwin, S. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice (Springer, 2016).

  18. Dryzek, J. S. The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).

  19. Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Vol. 1(Penguin Group, 2008).

  20. Hajer, M. A. in Words Matter in Policy and Planning: Discource Theory and Method in the Social Sciences (eds Van den Brink, M. & Metze, T.) 65–76 (Netherlands Graduate School of Urban and Regional Research, 2006).

  21. Hajer, M. A. The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process (Clarendon Press, 1995).

  22. Hopwood, B., Mellor, M. & O’Brien, G. Sustainable development: mapping different approaches. Sustain. Dev. 13, 38–52 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Carson, R. Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

  24. Our Common Future (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford Univ. Press, 1987).

  25. Robertson, M. M. The neoliberalization of ecosystem services: wetland mitigation banking and problems in environmental governance. Geoforum 35, 361–373 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Clapp, J. & Dauvergne, P. in Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment (eds Clapp, J. & Dauvergne, P.) 161–191 (MIT Press, 2011).

  27. Werksman, J. The clean development mechanism: unwrapping the Kyoto surprise. Rev. Eur. Comp. Int. Environ. Law 7, 147–158 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Christoff, P. Ecological modernisation, ecological modernities. Environ. Polit. 5, 476–500 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Breaking New Ground: The Report of the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Project (International Institute for Environment and Development, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Earthscan Publications, 2002).

  30. Hrabanski, M. The biodiversity offsets as market-based instruments in global governance: origins, success and controversies. Ecosyst. Serv. 15, 143–151 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Our Human Planet: Summary for Decision Makers (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005);

  32. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature: A Synthesis of the Approach, Conclusions and Recommendations of TEEB (TEEB, 2010);

  33. Bassey, N. et al. IUCN Withdrawal (Friends of the Earth International, 2009).

  34. WWC 10 Final Resolution 12: Building a Global Alliance to Assert ‘No-Go Areas’ for Mining and Other Extractive Industries and Destructive Activities Threatening World Heritage Sites, and Protected Areas, including Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities Conserved Areas and Territories (ICCAs) and Sacred Natural Sites and Territories (WWC, 2013).

  35. WCC-2012-Res-110-EN: Biodiversity Offsets and Related Compensatory Approaches (WCC, 2012).

  36. IUCN Resolutions, Recommendations and Other Decisions (IUCN, 2016).

  37. Permitted Clearing of Native Vegetation: Biodiversity Assessment Guidelines (The Victorian Government, Department of Environment and Primary Industries, 2013).

  38. NSW Biodiversity Offsets Policy for Major Projects (State of NSW, Office of Environment and Heritage, 2014).

  39. Our Evolving Approach to Biodiversity: The Next Chapter in Biodiversity Management (Rio Tinto, 2017);

  40. Konisky, D. M. & Woods, N. D. Environmental federalism and the Trump presidency: a preliminary assessment. Publius 48, 345–371 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Working for Biodiversity Net Gain: An Overview of the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP) 2004–2018 (BBOP, Forest Trends, 2018).

  42. Summary for Policymakers of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES Secretariat, 2019).

  43. Leipold, S. & Winkel, G. Discursive agency: (re-)conceptualizing actors and practices in the analysis of discursive policymaking. Policy Stud. J. 45, 510–534 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge Vol. I (Penguin Group, 2008).

  45. Walker, S., Brower, A. L., Stephens, R. T. T. & Lee, W. G. Why bartering biodiversity fails. Conserv. Lett. 2, 149–157 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Bäckstrand, K. & Lövbrand, E. The road to Paris: contending climate governance discourses in the post-Copenhagen era. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 21, 519–532 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Griggs, S. & Howarth, D. Discourse, policy and the environment: hegemony, statements and the analysis of UK airport expansion. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 21, 464–478 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Reflections on the Zero Draft Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (BirdLife International, 2020).

  49. IUCN Position: Zero Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (IUCN, 2020);

  50. Dingler, J. The discursive nature of nature: towards a post-modern concept of nature. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 7, 209–225 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Sharp, L. & Richardson, T. Reflections on Foucauldian discourse analysis in planning and environmental policy research. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 3, 193–209 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Moon, K. & Blackman, D. A guide to understanding social science research for natural scientists. Conserv. Biol. 28, 1167–1177 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Fairclough, N. Critical discourse analysis. Marges Linguist. 9, 76–94 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  54. NVivo qualitative data analysis software (QSR International, 2019);

  55. Calvet, C., Ollivier, G. & Napoleone, C. Tracking the origins and development of biodiversity offsetting in academic research and its implications for conservation: a review. Biol. Conserv. 192, 492–503 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Darier, É. (ed.) Discourses of the Environment (Blackwell, 1999).

  57. Bäckstrand, K. & Lövbrand, E. in The Social Construction of Climate Change: Power, Knowledge, Norms, Discourses (ed. Pettenger, M. E.) 123–147 (Taylor & Francis Group, 2007).

  58. Mol, A. P. J., Spaargaren, G. & Sonnenfeld, D. A. in The Ecological Modernisation Reader. Environmental Reform in Theory and Practice (eds Mol, A. P. J. et al.) 3–14 (Routledge, 2009).

  59. Nilsen, H. R. The joint discourse ‘reflexive sustainable development’—from weak towards strong sustainable development. Ecol. Econ. 69, 495–501 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Jacobs, M. in The Handbook of Global Climate and Environment Policy (ed. Falkner, R.) 197–214 (John Wiley & Sons, 2013);

  61. Ferguson, P. The green economy agenda: business as usual or transformational discourse? Environ. Polit. 24, 17–37 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Coffey, B. Unpacking the politics of natural capital and economic metaphors in environmental policy discourse. Environ. Polit. 25, 203–222 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Bakker, K. The limits of ‘neoliberal natures’: debating green neoliberalism. Prog. Hum. Geogr. 34, 715–735 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We acknowledge the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nations on whose unceded lands this research was undertaken. We respectfully acknowledge their Elders, past, present and emerging. This research was conducted with support from the Australian Research Council (ARC) through Discovery Project DP150103122 and from the European Union and RMIT University through a co-funded EU Centre HDR Travel Grant. We thank C. Koeleman for her expertise support in the design of Fig. 1 and B. Coffey for informal discussions on discourses in Australia and for providing us with relevant references on environmental discourses.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



F.L.P.D. and A.G. developed the initial idea. F.L.P.D. developed the research approach, collected the data, conducted the analysis and wrote the manuscript. A.G. and L.P. contributed ideas to the study design and edited the manuscript. A.G. contributed experience and perspective on the evolution of offset policies, and L.P. contributed experience and knowledge regarding the conceptual framework, qualitative analysis methods and sustainability governance.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Florence L. P. Damiens.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Data 1 and 2 and Methods.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Damiens, F.L.P., Porter, L. & Gordon, A. The politics of biodiversity offsetting across time and institutional scales. Nat Sustain 4, 170–179 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene