Biodiversity offsetting - an end to environmental protection?

M3 at Twyford Down

After the M3 was built at Twyford Down in 1994, replacement chalk grassland was created to 'offset' the lost wildlife habitat. A few years later it was all paved over by a huge 24-hour flood-lit car park.

The UK Government plans to allow biodiversity destroyed by development to be recreated elsewhere. Hannah Mowat of FERN believes the idea is both wrong and dangerous. The official consultation ends on 7th November 2013.

Biodiversity offsetting (BDO for short) is a tool which aims to assess likely biodiversity loss from development, then replace what is lost on new sites elsewhere. I believe this approach is deeply flawed on many levels. Not least because it fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between people and their natural surroundings.


For example, the proposed Bexhill-Hastings link road in Sussex will cause great damage to hedgerows, fields and woods in the Combe Haven valley. Under BDO, these natural features would be calculated in terms of their ‘quality' and the area they cover. The developer would be required to plant equivalent nature elsewhere.


Alternatively, the developer could approach a ‘Habitat Bank' and buy 'shrink-wrapped' biodiversity credits from a list of registered conservation projects. Specialised companies, NGOs or developers themselves create, restore, or avert the loss of ecosystems by creating protected areas. Such credits are created when specialised companies, NGOs or developers themselves create, restore, or avert the loss of ecosystems by creating protected areas.


The theory can be made to sound simple - at present developments go ahead and developers are not required to make amends - under BDO developers would be required to atone for their ecological sins. It is with this positive spin that the UK government has launched a public consultation to see how far they should push the concept.


As Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explains: "For developers, (offsetting) can offer a simpler, faster way through the planning system. It can be quicker and more straightforward to agree a development's impacts and can create a ready market to supply compensation for residual damage to nature."


But FERN, an EU based NGO fighting for environmental and social justice, and many other NGOs and scientists, have shown that the ecological flaws of BDO are already well documented. It has been shown to fail in every country that has given it a go including the USA, Australia and Canada.


But one study looking at wetland projects in the US found that most (67%) failed to meet permit requirements. Another study showed that of Ohio's 12 oldest wetland offsets, only three scored as 'successful'. The study went on to say that "four failed nearly every assessment, functioning more like shallow dead pools than wetlands."


The suggestion that it would ever be possible to faithfully restore a lost ecosystem is in itself ludicrous. Given the complexity and variability of natural systems, the ecological community is increasingly recognizing that recreating or restoring ecosystems to some specified former state is not feasible, especially within reasonable time frames. To ensure any newly created or restored area survives will require a long-term investment. Who will tell developers an offset is not just for Christmas?


Offsets must ‘replace' the lost biodiversity indefinitely, but reports from the US Government Accountability Office show that there is practically no response when offsets fail to achieve their objectives. They reported that "guidance for oversight of compensatory mitigation is vague or internally inconsistent."


One example in the UK: after the M3 motorway ripped a wide swathe through the former archaeological and environmental treasure that was Twyford Down, near Winchester, new chalk downland was created to replace what was destroyed. Just a few years later the recreated downland was paved over by the St Catherine's Park and Ride, a huge 24-hour flood-lit car park.


If the results of the new consultation is a big Whitehall push to increase development with the promise of offsetting the damage, this will make a mockery of ecology. Nature cannot be treated like chess pieces that you can move around, eliminating ecosystems at will, only to recreate them elsewhere.

This is most obviously the case with long established ecosystems - ancient woodlands for example, that have evolved over thousands of years in harmony with highly site specific soils, hydrology and meteorology, and management regimes.


And as far as local communities are concerned, location is all important. Even if an ecosystem were to be successfully transplanted elsewhere, it would lose its cultural significance and its relevance to local people and local history. How are environmental consultants to value the importance that nature has for local peoples, or the role that nature and landscape play in individual and collective lives? It is not just what nature is, but where it is that counts!


Take Rodborough Fields in Gloucestershire, a key wildlife site and Area of Natural Beauty with a rich historical community heritage. Local people host regular historical re-enactment walks that celebrate the social history of a valley that was used in the 18th and 19th century by the local cloth industry to dry the famous scarlet Stroud cloth. Frequent wildlife walks have also been organised to draw attention to the vibrant plant and invertebrate ecology.


Now Lioncourt Homes wants to build hundreds of houses on the Fields. A key part of Lioncourt's proposal is that it is working with Stroud district council to develop biodiversity offsets. But how will offsets assuage the damage to the local community and its traditions? Housing is needed, but not at any cost.


Challenging development projects imposed from on high is about protecting our environment and local people's experience of it. This is no light task, since it also means obstructing the ferocious power that the development lobby has over our country, whether roads, houses, shops or parking lots. If BDO is supposed to allow continued ‘economic growth' and ‘wealth creation', then we must ask: whose growth? Whose wealth?


Every Monopoly board has its 'get out of jail free' card and BDO is the equivalent 'licence to trash' card that the government wants to give developers. This is of course challenged by BDO proponents. They see that putting a price on ecosystems loss will regulate its destruction, and that the more precious an ecosystem is, the more expensive it would be to offset, thereby avoiding its destruction.


This means it will be regulation by price, not principle. The assumption is that the market price for habitat restoration will be high enough to ensure the country isn't trashed. But we have been here before with carbon credits and offsetting. Under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, putting a price on carbon was meant to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In fact the price of carbon credits is so low as to be almost meaningless and analysts predict prices will remain in single digits until 2027. Meanwhile, emissions rise, unchecked.


Using price rather than law to protect our landscapes poses fundamental questions about democracy. The social contract says that we are all equal in the eyes of law but BDO means some are more equal than others. Those that can pay for landscapes to be offset can legally break the law. Under BDO, only price can prevent the common meadow, the young woodland or local pond from being cemented over.


DEFRA's public consultation on BDO proposals ends on the 7th November: unless concerns with the social and democratic impact of this proposal are raised, deeply destructive changes to our environmental laws will be set in motion.

Hannah Mowat works for FERN in Brussels, Belgium on carbon and ecosystems trading.

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