Standard Mitigation Practices Create Inequity, Study Shows

When environmental damage affects ecosystem services to people, mitigation is often required, but rarely enforced. NatCap’s OPAL software tool can help.

By Stacey Solie | August 23, 2016

Infrastructure projects often disturb ecosystem services for local people, by degrading clean water, for example. OPAL offers project planners a way to design mitigation so that people retain services, or are fairly compensated when mitigation offsets happen elsewhere. Credit: Hoach Le Dinh / Unsplash

New roads, power lines, mines, and oil extraction projects impact the environment, degrading and destroying habitat that will ideally be replaced elsewhere, through mitigation. But when people live near areas where habitats been dramatically altered, those communities can still lose important benefits even with mitigation if the replacement sites are too far away.

Recognizing that current mitigation practices can leave affected communities worse off, many prominent permitting agencies and financial institutions, such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group, have added new language to their performance standards.  These are the requirements that projects must meet before receiving financing. Specifically, the IFC, as well as the 84 institutions who have adopted the Equator Principles, are now requiring development mitigation plans to address impacts on people by exploring their impacts on ecosystem services.

In practice though, this analysis is rarely happening, and this means that the substantial money being used for mitigation is contributing to inequity, says a recent paper published in Environmental Modeling & Software.  

“Narrowly focused implementation has led to unintentional redistribution of ecosystem services—the benefits nature provides to people,” the paper’s authors say, “creating social inequalities in direct contradiction to the intent of many such laws.”

Hailing from The Natural Capital Project and The Nature Conservancy, the authors present a solution through a software tool they built which simplifies what has until now been a dauntingly complex task.

“If a development project leads to ecosystem losses in one place, this software shows what that means for benefits to the people living there,” said lead author NatCap’s Lisa Mandle, based at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Using sophisticated modelling and mapping, the software, called Offset Portfolio Analyzer and Locator, or OPAL, also highlights places to mitigate that would restore ecosystem services to the people who lost them.

The software is relatively simple and quick to use once the necessary data has been inputted. The paper also walks the reader through a case study, demonstrating how it works, using a recently-approved gas drilling project in Colombia as an example.

In the example, OPAL showed that as grasslands in the project area are cleared away, more sediment and nitrogen will wash into streams used for drinking water for two towns. Left untreated, drinking water with excess sediment and nitrogen can pose health risks, especially for babies.

If mitigation parcels were chosen purely to offset biodiversity losses, as is standard practice, then the company could choose between 21 different parcels to take action. However, once specific affected populations of people are considered, only two parcels remained which would effectively restore water quality to the towns, and only one parcel fulfilled both the ecosystem service role while offsetting biodiversity losses.  

Since its release, OPAL has been downloaded over 300 times, but so far it’s not in wide use, said James Douglass, NatCap’s software team lead.

“It’s not been a case of ‘build it and they will come’ yet,” Douglass said. He hoped that as more people realize the tool is available, uptake would increase.

Felipe Osorio, an infrastructure specialist at The Nature Conservancy, based in Bogota, Colombia, said he hasn’t seen many people use the tool yet. He and the NatCap authors gave a training to a Colombian environmental office two years ago.  Unfortunately, he estimated that about 80 percent of the people from the training are no longer in the jobs they held at the time of the training.

“Another problem is that consulting companies are not thinking about compensating people when they are doing their environmental assessments,” Osorio said.

Osorio helped create OPAL’s predecessor software, MAFE – T, which is tailored specifically for use in Colombia, with its relevant laws and regulations built in.

“While the impact of OPAL on mitigation on the ground remains to be seen,” said author Lisa Mandle, “this paper will help get the word out to consulting companies, regulatory agencies, and project backers. We are optimistic that we can continue to build capacity around the world for people both to think about offsetting differently and have the ability to take action that is socially just.”

 

Read the study:
OPAL: An open-source software tool for integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services into impact assessment and mitigation decisions
Mandle, Lisa, James Douglass, Juan Sebastian Lozano, Richard P. Sharp, Adrian L. Vogl, Douglas Denu, Thomas Walschburger and Heather Tallis
Environmental Modelling & Software 84:121-133. October 2016. doi:10.1016/j.envsoft.2016.06.008

Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project.