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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.

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

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.


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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




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.

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Correspondence to Florence L. P. Damiens.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Data 1 and 2 and Methods.

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

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