Transylvania Grasslands Uplift Project Advances Biodiversity Crediting

As the lizards of Transylvania roam its incomparably beautiful grasslands, they are blissfully unaware that a lot of money and human hopes rest on their thin little shoulders. They also do not know that their homes are in grave danger.

Lizards have quite the life in Târnava Mare, in the southeast corner of the region, thanks to its incredible biodiversity spread over endless vistas of meadows, gentle hills and forests.

Their grassland habitats are in danger because of changing land use, the same principal cause of global biodiversity loss. The land is very fertile, making it ideal for big agricultural companies to buy at a time when farmers in the region are aging and their incomes are in the low thousands of euros.

Târnava Mare is consequently under pressure, losing more than 5% of its grasslands to arable farming in just the last few years, says local charity Adept, with satellite images suggesting that 25% of the entirety of the nearby Hârtibaciu basin, more easily accessible by road, has already been turned over to arable farming. It all portends disaster for the area’s biodiversity.

Saving Transylvania’s Grasslands with Biodiversity Credits

Georgiana Păun, a 30-year-old Romanian herpetologist and lizard expert, demonstrated her ability to spot and record more than 60 of the creatures during an OPIS site visit last summer. “I am a lizard,” she explained. This put her at the forefront of a bold new project that aims to measure the biodiversity of the grasslands, preserve them and then create voluntary biodiversity credits. Those credits might then be sold on by an investor willing to fund the initial conservation work.

Developed by Adept and British ecological restoration company rePLANET, the Târnava Mare project is one of the first biodiversity credit projects to use an “uplift” methodology that can in theory be applied to ecosystems around the world requiring restoration or preservation.

The methodology works by cataloguing the abundance of several “indicator species groups” that reflect the wider biodiversity of an area.

In the case of nature restoration projects using the methodology, voluntary biodiversity credits are then issued once an intervention to boost nature has resulted in a measured increase in the median abundance of those indicator species groups, with measurements of uplift taking place at a maximum of five-year intervals.

One biodiversity credit represents a 1% uplift in the median abundance of the indicator species in a hectare of a project. “Additionality” is baked into credit issuance: if there is no measured uplift in median species abundance in the wake of an intervention, no credits are generated.

In the case of “avoided loss” biodiversity credit projects such as Târnava Mare, the baseline is created by measuring biodiversity in areas that have already been ploughed, with very harmful effects for the indicator species.

The difference between the biodiversity found in those baseline reference sites and the biodiversity measured every five years in the conserved grasslands then forms the basis of biodiversity credit issuance over the 40-year lifetime of the project. If biodiversity measurements take place every five years and show that the project area’s biodiversity is being conserved, credits will be issued in five-year increments.

The methodology’s proponents say that the 1% uplift per hectare methodology creates a unit of quantification that is comparable to the metric ton of carbon that is used to generate carbon credits and allowances.

From Conference Hype to Hard Yards

In the year and a half since COP15 negotiations between 190 nations brokering the Global Biodiversity Framework in Montreal, there have been dozens of typically well-attended conferences about biodiversity credits. Such summits have been more numerous than projects actually capable of generating voluntary biodiversity credits.

That is beginning to change, and the Târnava Mare scheme, the most advanced of the rePLANET-affiliated projects, has now completed its base-lining work, which has been submitted for verification to the Biodiversity Futures Initiative, a non-profit peer reviewer employing academics.

The level of effort involved in collecting that indicator species data becomes quickly apparent during the OPIS site visit to the 2,219-hectare project area in Târnava Mare, as does the gulf in biodiversity between the conserved and razed grasslands.

Several Romanian and British ecologists, in addition to a Romanian support team recruited by Adept and rePLANET, spent two months in the summer of 2023 in Angofa, a wildlife center housed in a small former 19th century village schoolhouse a few miles from the castle town of Sighișoara, a potential birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula.

The data collection was overseen by 34-year-old Dr. Max Bodmer, a coral reef expert and former teacher, who verified Păun’s lizard observations over several hours of trekking in the heat between different sites.

Biodiversity and Beauty in Transylvania

Târnava Mare’s ability to beguile lies in the contrasts it serves up with every bend of the road. “Welcome to hobbit land,” says Păun as the car passes soft-sloping green hills that crest into the far distance to the left, while mighty oaks, some of Europe’s oldest, loom to the right. But the car turns a corner, and the hills suddenly give way to cloud-capped mountains, which soar above one of the region’s fifteen valleys carpeted with thick forest.

The beauty and biodiversity contained in Transylvania and its threatened grasslands have attracted visitors, writers and royalty through the ages. During a late-afternoon break from lizard spotting, Bodmer’s mud-caked car is passed by King Charles III as he exits a 12th century fortified church in the village of Viscri. Britain’s Transylvania-loving king has a home in the village and has previously lauded the region’s “priceless biodiversity [and] remarkable examples of sustainable farming.”

Nat Page, a former British diplomat and the director of Adept, employed ecologists in 2009 to measure the biodiversity of the Târnava Mare grasslands, and their study showed some of the highest concentrations of plant species ever recorded, with 45 species identified in a 0.1 square meter space.

“It really is incredible when you’re walking through the grasslands in the Târnava Mare. With every step you take, you’re seeing something new,” says Bodmer, who hopes that the project can serve as a template for restoring biodiversity in his native Britain. “It really can be used as a model for what a European grassland and what a European agricultural landscape could look like if we start to manage land more effectively and with more care for biodiversity in the natural environment,” he argues.

It is a shock, then, when Păun and Bodmer finally reach one of the sites that appeared to be home to pristine grassland, only to find that it has been ploughed up in the two days between being observed via satellite images and the pair’s arrival at the site.

Gone are the all-you-can-eat grasshopper food bars, the butterflies of every hue and the hares jumping out of the grass, with the lizards hit the hardest. The data collected by Păun show that lizard sightings in the conserved grasslands are more than 20 times higher than in the ploughed areas, some of which are not being actively managed but are already in the process of being converted for arable farming.

Boosting Farmer Incomes Key to Saving Biodiversity

Preserving a large part of the grasslands in the medium-to-long-term will depend on finding cold, hard cash to combat the lure of big agrifood money and the region’s stark demographic challenges.

Large parts of Romania have all the trappings of modern European life, but high in the Transylvanian hills, a few villagers still travel by horse and cart along often decrepit roads in half-abandoned villages.

If a corporate buyer of the project’s biodiversity and carbon credits can be attracted, a viable future in farming is still possible, say rePLANET and Adept. The all-in costs for the 40-year-long project come to $17,560,000, with the estimated biodiversity credits slightly more numerous than carbon credits (the exact prices are featured in the OPIS Biodiversity Market Report, published for the first time this month).

Around 115 small-scale farmers would receive direct payments representing 60% of the project’s funds if they pledge to maintain and boost traditional biodiversity-friendly farming practices, greatly improving their livelihoods. Under current arrangements, according to rePLANET’s calculations, a farmer owning five cows, 15 sheep, nine hectares of hay meadow and 12 hectares of pasture can expect a net annual income of €3,150 ($3,400), which includes recently reduced EU Common Agricultural Policy payments.

Funding from the credits would boost net income to €5,800. Furthermore, if the credits were resold by the project backer, 60% of any profit would go back to the project participants. The biodiversity-carbon credit project would consequently tilt the balance in favor of preserving the all-important traditional farming practices, say rePLANET and Adept.

The latter has discussed the proposal with local community mayors, but the early-stage nature of the project means that the developers do not want to get farmers’ hopes up before a backer is found.

A lot is riding on whether the project receives funding and biodiversity crediting takes off, says Adept’s Page. The former diplomat is critical of how Romanian government payments are being reduced at the same time as payment schemes’ requirements are changing.

“The ability of farmers to access payments is going to fall massively,” says Page. “In 2024, there is no longer a high nature value scheme. It is a massive threat to the area. … New conditions are being attached which would forbid farmers from receiving money unless they leave their land alone until August 1 every year.” That stipulation is at odds with traditional mowing practices, which have taken place at different times of the year, contributing to the region’s biodiversity over centuries.

“The biodiversity and carbon credit proposal is coming at a key moment,” he suggests. “If we can offer sensible, ecologically-literate payment and inspection, rather than bureaucratic Bucharest-based payment and inspection … it’s better than state payments. The power of corporate money to influence the area is even greater.”

Conclusion: Pressure Growing for Corporate Action

The natural world is melting into thin air at a greater rate than human history has ever known. Accounting firm Deloitte warned last month of “a catastrophic future if this depletion persists.” Its report focused on nature-related risks for the U.S. banking system running into the trillions of dollars, and it is indeed the global banking system that is a focus of the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures that was published in 2023.

The market-led, government-supported TNFD is shaping up to be a key driver of corporate action to stem biodiversity loss. A total of 320 early adopters, mainly banks and asset managers, have agreed to use the TNFD framework to assess and disclose the impact of their investments and lending on the natural world.

Such impact assessments and biodiversity footprinting must take place first before companies can undertake actions potentially enabling them to make “nature positive” claims. Voluntary biodiversity credits could offer companies a means to quantify their positive impacts on biodiversity after offsetting the direct impact of their operations on nature.

But a lot must happen to reach that point, including a broader acceptance that “pricing the priceless” and putting a value on nature restoration is necessary and achievable, even as other means to stop nature loss such as legislation and ending nature-harming subsidies are also pursued by governments.

There will also be a time lag between nature restoration project developers undertaking their interventions and actually generating the biodiversity uplift that allows credits to be issued.

It remains to be seen whether a sufficient number of big businesses can be chivvied into making “nature positive” commitments that they then buy voluntary biodiversity credits. Dorothée Herr, then a senior associate at NatureFinance, suggested last year that scaling up biodiversity markets might require “policy-induced demand.”

As the Târnava Mare grasslands project shows, threats are lapping at the edges of even the most widely recognized homes of pristine biodiversity. Credit methodologies to put a rope around them and restore nature to barren ground now exist, as do the ecologists willing to get the projects started.

Tags: Biodiversity