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An exploration into the feasibility of simultaneously achieving ‘No Net Loss’ of biodiversity and ecosystem services, in an uncertain and changing world

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NNL (An exploration into the feasibility of simultaneously achieving ‘No Net Loss’ of biodiversity and ecosystem services, in an uncertain and changing world)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

The world is currently witnessing a sharp decline in biodiversity, caused largely by human activity, and thought to be resulting in a corresponding loss of ecosystem services. However, the economic development activities that are a key driver of this loss of biodiversity also provide substantial benefits to human wellbeing. It is consequently increasingly clear that an optimal balance must be found between development and biodiversity conservation.

One relatively new principle that shows promise in trying to balance this trade-off is that of ‘No Net Loss’ (NNL) – i.e. implementing mechanisms in which biodiversity losses from development are measured, and active conservation interventions are implemented that fully compensate for those losses, resulting in no net loss of biodiversity alongside development. Understanding NNL is therefore of significant importance to policymakers, businesses, and the general pubic. However, it is not yet clear how widely NNL has been implemented, or whether NNL of biodiversity and ecosystem services can be achieved in tandem. Further, NNL is not a trivial objective when ecological dynamics (e.g. climate driven habitat change) and social dynamics (e.g. economic growth) are taken into account. It is crucial that we establish whether there are general principles that can be applied to achieving NNL across different ecosystems, and if not, identify key peculiarities for each system.

In the Fellowship, we sought to compile disparate data so as to create the first global database on the current use of NNL type interventions, including spatial (e.g. location, size, form of habitat disturbance) and non-spatial (e.g. absolute species losses, species gains) information. Using these data, we have analysed existing NNL interventions for the first time. Correspondingly, we have been expanding theory on the use of ‘frames of reference’ in NNL interventions. Building on this improved empirical and theoretical basis, we have developed bespoke simulation models, with which we are exploring the implementation of different types of NNL policy mechanism. Our simulations consider not only biological components, but also feedback between social and ecological components of the system, drivers of environmental change, and sources of uncertainty.

Our original objectives were:
1. To collate a database of the implementation of NNL-type interventions worldwide
2. Establish quantitative landscape frames of reference for case study ecosystems (Europe, US, Australia), as a basis for evaluating the outcomes of simulation models.
3. Build or implement models to simulate the implementation of different NNL type interventions in the ecosystems for which a frame of reference has been developed above
4. Identify the system drivers, dynamics, feedbacks and sources of uncertainty that determine NNL outcomes
5. Develop a general theory for achieving NNL in dynamic systems, if one is possible
6. Apply any general theory developed to European ecosystems for which data exist (e.g. forests, mountains, marine systems).

Thee objectives have largely been met, and the results published in an ongoing series of academic papers, some of which have received considerable media interest.
Work carried out over the course of the fellowship comprises, first of all, the construction of a global database of biodiversity offsets, which has led to three manuscripts and which has proven of substantial interest to other academics and to industrial partners.

Much theoretical work was completed into the development of reference frames for conservation interventions. A landscape scale frame of reference was developed for US NNL. Furthermore, a global assessment of counterfactuals used in conservation interventions is in process, intended to be a landmark study.

Two detailed simulation models were constructed over the course of the Fellowship. One implements a non-spatial 'Management Strategy Evaluation' (MSE) framework to explore different metrics for NNL, including biodiversity and ecosystem services, and allows prediction of likely avoidance measures taken in NNL implementation (Bull et al., in prep.). The second is a spatial model enabling multidimensional measures of NNL outcomes, developed by Australian colleagues with input from the Fellow. Outcomes from the model again explore biodiversity vs. ecosystem service NNL, and are in progress.

Throughout the Fellowship, a series of conceptual and experimental papers have made substantial contributions to the theoretical basis for NNL, particularly in the context of dynamic ecosystems and social considerations. The set of papers in review, in revision and in preparation expand upon this further. One paper on the verge of acceptance explores the implementation of NNL in a European context specifically (objective 6) (Bull et al., in review). Next step is to apply NNL simulation models in a European context.
Progress beyond the state-of-the-art and societal impact was considered throughout the project. The development of the first global dataset on NNL implementation represents a substantial contribution to the field, and extends the state-of-the-art. The associated manuscripts are widely anticipated by the professional networks with which the Fellow is associated, and have already formed the basis of a number of further funding proposals (in which the Fellow is either the lead or a partner). The dataset has not only academic importance, but is also widely requested for use by industry – suggesting its impact will be considerable.

The development of theory around counterfactuals and reference frames, similarly, is of wide interest and novelty – resulting in the acceptance for publication of one article in the Nature family of journals.

A number of developments associated with the Fellowship were truly interdisciplinary – bringing together conservation ecology, behavioural economics and psychology – in new and interesting ways. These include papers that consider NNL and human-driven speciation (Bull & Maron, 2016), NNL and risk aversion/power imbalances (Bull et al., 2017a), NNL and economic rationality (Bull et al., 2017b), and NNL and gender preferences (Abatayo et al., in prep.). In particular, the speciation paper had high general impact: being published in a very high tier journal (Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences) and receiving widespread media coverage, including full articles in the Washington Post and El Pais amongst others.

Finally, the outputs are known to have been picked up and used by policymakers during both open and closed policy discussions - in particular, for the UK and the EU (Bull & Brownlie, 2015; Bull et al., 2016).
Location of a pipeline associated with biodiversity impact mitigation, Alberta, Canada