has looked at whether "biodiversity banking" could help halt the ongoing decline of species in New Zealand's green backyard.

But the report, just released by the Environmental Defence Society, finds the approach may not be so straightforward, and much work would be needed before it could be used here.

Still, its lead author, Dr Marie Brown, whose book Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand's biodiversity crisis also traverses the issue, said the status quo was unacceptable.

In the past 800 years, humans and their accompanying pests had brought about the extinction of 32 per cent of indigenous land and freshwater birds, 18 per cent of endemic seabirds, three of seven frogs, at least 12 invertebrates, possibly 11 plants, a fish, a bat and perhaps three known reptiles.


Today, about 1000 animal, plant and fungi species are considered threatened, and it is likely that many unknown species are also threatened.

Despite this, development activities cause further harm to species and ecosystems, and agreements are often struck that require developers to do something positive for nature - a biodiversity offset or environmental compensation.

These can include planting projects, pest control or other good things to help address the negative impacts caused.

Biodiversity banking would change how those offsets and compensation projects would or could be delivered, by dragging them all into a single system.

Brown discussed the report with science reporter Jamie Morton.

What is bio-banking? How does the concept work and what are the supposed benefits?

Biodiversity banking is where developers and resource users are given the opportunity to "buy" biodiversity credits that already exist to address new impacts on the environment.

The credits can be generated by a range of stakeholders, depending on system design, thus providing a market for habitat creation, restoration and enhancement.


For instance, landowners may be able to restore ecosystems on their property and receive money for that effort - at present we generally rely on good will alone.

The benefits of biodiversity banking, providing it is well-designed, compared with the current state of play is that landowners may be able to receive benefits for conservation work that they otherwise bear the cost of.

Protection of the environmental values needs to be carried out before the impact occurs and, at present, damage to ecosystems can occur up front, with long timeframes for restoration projects coming afterwards.

The Green gecko. Photo / Dylan Van Winkel
The Green gecko. Photo / Dylan Van Winkel

Often, those requirements are not carried out and no enforcement action is taken.
It's less risky to require it in advance.

Developers in New Zealand at present also have the responsibility for delivering offset benefits - this is rarely within their realm of expertise and they often need to contract it out at great expense or do a shoddy job in-house.

Biodiversity banking provides an opportunity to hand over that responsibility to people that know about conservation and will do a good job.

This results in lower transaction costs overall and fewer incidences of technical failure.

Finally, almost all offset and environmental compensation proposals in New Zealand are negotiated individually and on a bespoke basis.

There is little systematisation, leading to high transaction costs for little additional benefit and inefficient use of the funding that is available.

Has it been used anywhere overseas?

Biodiversity banking is operating in several countries around the world, with varying outcomes depending on scheme design, the quality of administration and the parameters built around the underlying exchanges and other factors.

It would be crucial for New Zealand to learn from these jurisdictions in designing our own.

Is there any desire and potential to use it here in New Zealand - and why might it be a good fit for us?

There has been interest in biodiversity banking for some time.

It could be a good catalyst for helping consolidate some of the restoration efforts required by consent conditions - particularly when the projects are small.

We have also had many instances of major projects not delivering their requirements.

What are the drawbacks - and what hurdles would we need to clear before it could be effective?

New benefits always carry new risks, and the risks of biodiversity banking are numerous.

The fundamental problem is that the underlying exchanges of biodiversity must be robust and serve the public good.

In most cases, they simply do not.

Poor offset and environmental compensation agreements abound in New Zealand, and biodiversity banking would simply serve to expedite them.

Not a win.

Most other issues could be addressed by good scheme design.

The endangered Kokako. Photo / Auckland Zoo
The endangered Kokako. Photo / Auckland Zoo

However, all schemes sit over the political landscape and as that changes, so too can the scheme be weakened or, less often, made more stringent.

The report identifies some work required before biodiversity banking would be prospective.

These tasks include engagement with tangata whenua.

While biodiversity banking may have huge prospects for the restoration of Maori-owned land, the scheme should be designed and implemented with support, insights and participation of Maori.

Other jurisdictions have failed to engage with the indigenous people and then scratched their heads as to why there is low participation.

Tasks include tweaking the law to enable the transfer of liability from an original consent applicant to the party that will deliver, or has already, the project and enabling conservation gains to be secured in advance - or banked.

In short, there is work to do to establish a much more robust legal basis upon which a scheme could be built.

Generally, what is the status quo of biodiversity management here in New Zealand?

The status quo of biodiversity management in New Zealand, in general, is chronically underfunded agencies, often with warped priorities that are unable - with current funds - to arrest biodiversity decline.

Their efforts are complemented by a burgeoning conservation community - similarly poorly resourced.

Development continues however against this background decline, and dubious exchanges are common.

It's hard to see how biodiversity banking could be a positive development until we improve where and how we use offsetting concepts.

The cost of the damage and the price of the restoration fall too often on the shoulders of the public through government agencies.

It's too easy to damage environmental goods, and vast wealth is extracted from the commons at little recompense every day.

A fairer distribution of costs and benefits is sorely needed.