OPAL software aims to restore ecosystems

OPAL splash screen
OPAL helps identify mitigation options to restore ecosystem service benefits back to the communities affected by development projects.

It’s projected that $57 trillion will be spent on new infrastructure projects by 2030, much of it in developing countries. Because such projects can damage or destroy critical environmental services, nearly 200 countries as well as many financial institutions — including International Finance Corporation and Equator Principals Financial Institutions, which provide more than 70 percent of international project finance debt in developing economies — now require developers to assess and mitigate any environmental costs. The trouble is the current offset approach too often results in restoration efforts taking place far from where the ecosystem was damaged.

OPAL, a free, open-source software tool, aims to remedy that by helping impact assessment practitioners, policy makers and developers more accurately determine the environmental costs of development projects and ensure mitigation plans benefit the appropriate communities.

"OPAL makes the consequences of development transparent," said Lisa Mandle, a Stanford postdoctoral scholar in biology and senior scientist at the Natural Capital Project. "You can see which communities are affected and how."

OPAL — Offset Portfolio Analyzer and Locator — was developed by the Natural Capital Project, a collaborative program of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. OPAL can help shape development plans by estimating how much habitat and ecosystem services will be lost, which communities will be impacted and where and how much offset is required to mitigate that impact.

OPAL combines available ecological and social data with InVEST sediment, nutrient and carbon models. To use the software, the user inputs region-specific data and generates a set of static ecosystem service maps based on the InVEST models. Next, they enter criteria including the project footprint, ecological data (land use, potential mitigation parcels) offset type (protection or restoration) and social data (population centers, servicesheds, preferred offset areas) and run OPAL. The program produces a summary of the project’s impacts on the local ecosystem and ecosystem services and a list of suggested offset patches with maps. As the user selects from the offsets, OPAL updates the net benefits to local biodiversity and ecosystem services.

OPAL inputs

OPAL suggests offsets based on flexible, user-defined criteria.

Businesses in Colombia currently use a forerunner of OPAL called MAFE (Mapping Alternatives for Equivalents) to account for and mitigate development damage and meet that country’s offset requirements. But unlike MAFE, designed specifically for Colombia’s needs, OPAL is customizable and can be used anywhere in the world.

OPAL only accounts for impacts due to land use changes within the project footprint; it can’t determine indirect impacts, such as land use change around a road spurred by road development. It also doesn’t account for significant changes to an area’s hydrology, such as those caused by mining, so users should be aware of the tool's few limitations and ensure it meets their specific needs before employing it.

"It's one thing to have offsetting development broadly as a goal; it's another thing to figure out how you're going to do it," said James Douglass, a Woods-affiliated senior software engineer at the Natural Capital Project.

Thanks to OPAL, it just got a lot easier.