Despite widespread recognition of the vital benefits provided by Ontario’s diverse natural areas, they continue to be threatened by development pressures. These threats will be exacerbated with the recent passing of Bill 23 and its associated legislative and policy changes which undermine environmental protections across the province under the guise of addressing the affordable housing crisis.
The practice of ecological offsetting – which involves creating, restoring and/or enhancing ecosystems to compensate for the negative impacts of development – is gaining acceptance in many circles as a strategy to deal with ongoing losses. In fact, the Government of Ontario is exploring a provincial standard on ecological offsetting in association with Bill 23. Ecological offsetting could lessen the impact of development on the natural world, but careless or poorly informed offsetting, or offsetting pursued under perverse motivations, will only accelerate the loss of natural areas without providing adequate compensation.
A clear policy goal that aims for a net gain of natural areas and their values, or at least no net loss
Application of the policy to a range of ecological, social and cultural values
Commitment to engage with Indigenous communities meaningfully and respectfully
Strict adherence to the “mitigation sequence” (avoid, minimize, mitigate, then offset adverse impacts), which positions offsetting as a last resort
Setting limits to which ecosystems can be considered for offsetting which uphold strict protections for significant or ‘irreplaceable’ natural areas
Strategic selection of offset sites that support desired outcomes
Commitment to addressing time lags (between creating the offset and realizing its full range of benefits) and ensuring long-term protection of offsets
Long-term performance monitoring and adaptive management to achieve desired outcomes
Credible process for quantifying gains and losses of identified values
Public transparency about the status and outcomes of policy and implementation
At least four of Ontario’s conservation authorities (CAs) have developed detailed offsetting policies: Toronto and Region CA, Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), Lake Simcoe Region CA (LSRCA) and Nottawasaga Valley CA. These policies reflect many of the criteria outlined above. Each one aims for no net loss and ideally net gain, with LSRCA specifically requiring that “the value of loss is supported with an appropriate net gain.” Each also requires adherence to the mitigation sequence, sets out a strategic site selection procedure, and specifies limits to what can be offset. CVC sets a particularly high standard with its monitoring protocol and approach to quantifying losses and gains.
Despite the strengths of these policies, there is room for improvement. None commit to meaningful and respectful engagement with Indigenous communities, nor require the consideration of social and cultural values. Public reporting requirements should also be strengthened.
The policies and practices of Ontario’s CAs along with other expert and community knowledge about ecological offsetting could provide the provincial government with a strong foundation from which to build a provincial standard with real benefits for nature. However, if a provincial offsetting policy is not pursued with the utmost caution and input from experts and others, Ontarians can expect the policy to simply mask and accelerate the loss of our beloved natural areas.
To learn more about the concerns associated with the provincial ecological offsetting policy proposal, please read this joint submission to Environmental Registry of Ontario posting 019-6161. Registered organizations interested in adding their signatures are welcome to sign on by completing this online form by December 18. The deadline for public comment is December 30, 2022 for individuals or groups interested in submitting their own feedback.
For more information about ecological offsetting, specifically relating to wetlands, check out Ontario Nature’s new primer, which introduces the basics of wetland offsetting practice and policy, including additional resources for those who want to delve even deeper.
Sarah Hasenack (she/her) joined Ontario Nature in Spring 2022 and is loving her work as the organization’s Conservation Planning Coordinator. She has a passion protecting and appreciating nature fostered through years of family camping and hiking trips, backed up by a Bachelor and Master of Science in Environmental Sciences both completed at the University of Guelph.