Biodiversity Offsetting: CIEEM spring conference 2014

This was one of the best CIEEM conferences I have ever been to.  Really interesting talks and a roomful of friends and former colleagues to catch up with.  If you’re not familiar with biodiversity offsetting, the idea behind it is to formalise what most ecologists do already in situations where loss of habitat can’t be avoided – we look for off site compensation and aim to recreate the lost habitat or improve existing habitat currently in poor condition to try and compensate for the adverse impact of the project.  Have a look at DEFRA’s webpage on it here to find out more about current policy and the six pilot areas where offsetting is being tried out.

The talks presented a variety of views on biodiversity offsetting from ‘the thin end of the wedge’ to ‘doesn’t work elsewhere so why would it work here’ to ‘better than nothing’ to ‘hurrah, yes please’.  Yeah, the last one was a housing developer, could you guess ??!

In many ways, the introduction of a numerically based biodiversity offsetting scheme approved by Government is a good thing, as it offers developers, ecologists and planners an easily understood framework for negotiating off site compensation.  I think back to some of my past projects where off site compensation was involved and think how much easier it would have been if we all could have just had a formula that said, right, we are losing x amount of neutral grassland, therefore we must provide either 3x amount of newly created grassland or improve the condition of 2x amount of existing grassland.  There would still have been the messing around trying to find suitable sites and legal tomfoolery, but at least the quantity of compensatory habitat would have been agreed and sorted out.

There are, however, numerous pitfalls with the biodiversity offsetting approach which need to be considered carefully before using it on a project.  Firstly, biodiversity offsetting should NEVER be used in situations where the lost habitat is irreplaceable.  Current Government policy and offsetting guidance is quite clear that this is unacceptable, but that hasn’t stopped Owen Paterson making some ‘interesting’ pronouncements lately.  Obviously if a project results in loss of ancient woodland we are going to expect the developer to provide lots of new woodland and/or woodland management as part of their mitigation scheme, as this would be better than nothing, but what they can’t do is say that this compensates for the ancient woodland loss, because it can never do that.

Secondly, putting a numerical value on habitats runs the risk of losing like-for-like compensation schemes.  For instance, I think biodiversity offsetting makes sense if you are losing grassland and you compensate by providing new grassland.  However, if you try to replace 8 units of grassland with 8 units of woodland, I don’t see how that helps the grassland biodiversity lost to the development.  What I don’t want to happen is for every compensation scheme to be about some crappy tree planting when what we really want is large scale habitat creation and management in perpetuity.

I also think the compensation site should be local – in the same local authority area, or an adjacent one.  After all, if we are losing Derbyshire grassland what we want is Derbyshire grassland, not some compensation in Dorset on a site with totally different biodiversity.  My worst nightmare is a global biodiversity ofsetting trading scheme whereby limestone pavement in the UK is traded for a tree planting scheme in Mauritania which may or may not even exist (it’s not easy to check on a site halfway across the world and sadly, corruption is rife everywhere).

Even before the introduction of formal biodiversity offsetting, the problem with off-site compensation schemes was always finding land and money for management arrangements in perpetuity.  So often, what happened was the developer would end up giving the council a pot of money which was supposed to be spent on a particular site, but nothing happened, or there was just a token effort which didn’t achieve the promised objectives.  Not dissimilar to the overall situation with mitigation promises made in Environmental Statements, unfortunately.  Talk is cheap.  Things may change with the birth of brokers specialising in biodiversity offsetting, such as The Environment Bank, whose purpose is to put developers in touch with interested landowners willing and able to create new habitat and/or improve existing habitat and wanting to get paid for doing so.  Only time will tell.  The early results coming out of the pilots are not particularly promising, to be honest.  Few people are coming forward at the developer and habitat creation ends of the process, meaning there are not many projects likely to complete.  Add the seemingly constant fiddling with the metrics to customise them for the particular situation and this is starting to look like a fudge.

There will, of course, be those who are against biodiversity offsetting in principle, for philosophical reasons, and I understand that thought process, but the reality is that with the current planning system in the UK we already weigh up nature conservation interests with landscape, transport, air quality, social and economic and many other factors in deciding whether a particular scheme should go ahead.  The fact is that we as a society already put a price on nature every day.  I am saying not that this is all fine and dandy, but that it’s not unique to biodiversity offsetting per se.  Those interested in this line of reasoning may like to visit Greenhouse Think Tank and read their paper ‘Offsetting Nature?’ which makes some very valid points about the psychological and philosophical consequences of viewing nature as a commodity to be traded.

I think biodiversity offsetting is probably coming, whether we like it or not, and will await the results of the pilot projects with interest.

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