Biodiversity ‘offsets’: are we ready or do we presume to know too much?

31 July 2013

As developable land close to existing infrastructure, resources and – importantly – money becomes increasingly scarce, the option of offsetting the loss of, for example, a wetland, might be “offset” against saving a wetland somewhere else, creating a wetland somewhere else or some permutation thereof.  As a result the term “biodiversity offset” is appearing in EIA-type discussions on an increasing basis.

Here follows an article that appeared on BBC news, reproduced with permission, and forms the first of a series of articles on this topic to be run by Droplets.

Government proposals would mean developers would have to pay compensation equal to any damage to habitats (Source: BBC News Science and Environment)

Government proposals would mean developers would have to pay compensation equal to any damage to habitats (Source: BBC News Science and Environment)

There’s slightly less of a whiff of BO down at the Department of the Environment these days.

Nothing to do with sweltering civil servants; this BO is the nose wrinkling acronym for biodiversity offsetting – a concept that has been criticised by some environmentalists as a licence to “trash” the countryside.

The government is very keen on the idea, the offsetting, that is, not the trashing.

But despite their interest, new proposals on offsetting have now been kicked into the autumnal long grass.

The idea of biodiversity offsetting works like this : Developers who want to build houses in environmentally sensitive areas would be allowed to go ahead with their schemes if they could offset any damage by paying for conservation activities in other locations.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) believes the idea can help grow the economy and improve the environment at the same time.

Pilots on trial

Certainly, similar schemes have been up and running for many years in other parts of the world. In the US a wetland banking idea has been active since the 1970s. In New South Wales, Australia, a bio bank was set up a decade ago, allowing land owners to generate credits through the improvement of biodiversity and these credits can then be sold to developers who are likely to damage a site.

In England, six pilot areas were selected in 2012 for two year trials of a voluntary approach to offsetting through the planning system.

In April this year, a report from the Government’s Ecosystems Markets Task Force recommended that the offsetting scheme should be rolled out nationwide as a matter of priority.

BO, it said, would “revolutionise conservation in England by delivering restoration, creation and long term management on in excess of 300,000 hectares of habitat over 20 years”.

Secretary of State Owen Paterson said he would outline his proposals in a green paper that was due to be published for consultation this week.

But BO has now been offset to the back end of the year.

Defra says it needs to take the time to get the proposals right,

“Biodiversity offsetting could help improve our environment as well as boost the economy and it is important that we get the detail right,” said a spokesman.

“We will continue to talk to interested groups and will launch a formal consultation in the Autumn.”

However environmental organisations have a different view of what is going on.

“I guess there wasn’t as much of a consensus around developing an approach as people might have thought was emerging,” said Austin Brady, head of conservation at the Woodland Trust.

He says there are considerable problems with the idea – the suggestion that ancient woodlands could be included in any scheme is something he says is a non-starter. And he is concerned that by making offsetting a statutory part of the planning process, developers will use it to their advantage.

“The concern is with the ‘licence to trash’ concept is that if a developer comes along with a major project they may be tempted to just put some money on the table to pay for offsetting and not feel obliged to go through the preliminary steps of trying to avoid damage.

“That might feel like a quicker fix for them and that’s a concern.”

Other organisations object to the concept that one bit of nature can be used to replace another. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the complexity of our environment says Neil Sinden from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

“In practice, how could a developer replace a mile of ancient hedgerow with three times the length of new planting and say that is sufficient mitigation? Many habitats are simply irreplaceable and integral to the character of our landscape.”

Supporters say that despite these difficulties, the overall concept is sound. They point to the fact that you could pool the money you might get from developers for relatively minor damage and use it to create a much larger conservation area.

“If we get it right it could benefit the economy and benefit wildlife,” said Nik Shelton from RSPB.

“But the early proposals that we saw weren’t going to achieve that. It sounds like they’ve listened.”

Original article by Matt McGrath – Environment Correspondent.


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