A license to trash? Why Biodiversity Offsetting (BO) will be a disaster for the environment

| 9th September 2013

Image of a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). The implementation of BO at a site in Kent could spell disaster for the already declining population of Nightingales found there.

As the UK government gives the go ahead for the country's first Biodiversity Offsetting (BO) scheme, Lorna Howarth explains why it will be a disaster for the nation's already declining wildlife
Biodiversity offsetting is just another way for finance to get the better of Nature

Biodiversity Offsetting (BO) is a market-based instrument to regulate environmental problems, in a similar way to carbon trading or REDD. It means that if a business or developer wants to build on an area that has protected species on it, they can do so as long as the ecosystem is recreated elsewhere or that an ecosystem with similar attributes is bought by the developer. It’s a similar principle to offsetting your carbon emissions by paying to have a few trees planted, except that with BO, we’re talking about entire ecosystems in all their complexity.

BO in essence allows landowners to ‘bank’ certain biodiversity-rich habitats so property developers or businesses can buy that land if they want to destroy another richly biodiverse habitat elsewhere. In theory, there is no net loss of biodiversity because the developer has offset any losses by purchasing the ‘banked’ land.

However, Neil Sinden, CPRE’s Policy and Campaign Director recently claimed that offsetting is unacceptable if it allows developers to push through damaging schemes. “Many habitats are irreplaceable and integral to the character of our landscape,” he said. "It seems in the overcrowded UK, biodiversity offsetting is just another way for finance to get the better of Nature."

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has highlighted a proposed development of 5,000 houses near Gillingham in Kent which could destroy the already declining population of nightingales in the area, because the concept of BO has not been proven to work adequately. In this case, the BTO has discussed how even if some of the displaced nightingales used the adjoining woods, the influx of domestic cats to the area would eradicate them because of their need to nest on the ground.

To recreate the nightingale’s habitat through BO in this case is risky because the replacement habitat could take up to 10 years to properly establish itself, and even then the nightingales may choose not to inhabit it. By this point, there is no chance to go back and replace the destroyed habitat and natural wild population of nightingales if biodiversity offsetting is unsuccessful.

Biodiversity offsetting is just another way for finance to get the better of Nature

BO subjects our landscape and wildlife to the same process of commodification that has blighted everything else the corporate economy touches. If we accept the idea of BO, we accept the idea that place means nothing. It will unleash a new spirit of destruction on the land.

There have been occasions where BO has been shown to work, such as a development in Peterborough in the 1990s that offset a population of newts from several clay pits and successfully repopulated them elsewhere. But in general it has been found that piecemeal offsets often result in “eco-islands in alien terrain” – often poor substitutes for habitats that once blended naturally into the wider landscape.

One study in Ohio, USA, where wetland offsets are now a firm national policy, found that two thirds of wetland offset projects did not deliver what they had promised in terms of biodiversity.

Governments and businesses are trying to greenwash BO by saying that we have to accept that we’re going to keep losing habitat but that it’s not acceptable that businesses don’t pay for their impact making BO is part of the “Polluter Pays’ principle where businesses take responsibility for the damage they’re doing. This makes the development appear like a pragmatic and visionary solution and even that the developer has sound ecological principles.

But, what does it mean when environmental problems are commodified such that they can be bought, sold and regulated through markets? How do you recreate a valued landscape, such as one where people may have enjoyed a particular view for generations?

And what about the social impact of offsetting? How is it possible to recreate the value of a village woodland that has been the place of dens and camps for children, if that woodland is offset as part of a forest hundreds of miles away? What does that tell our children about Nature? That it is worthless and dispensable.

Biodiversity offsetting raises a number of questions. How do you ensure offset woodland is ‘functionally equivalent’ to what was lost? Who checks that equivalence over time, in 5, 10, 50, 100 years?

Who makes sure that years down the line, that the offset is not then built on by another developer who simply offsets elsewhere? And what is the methodology by which you value something that has been lost?

Nature has countless values, and yet the DEFRA methodology is simplistic beyond words. So far, these questions have few good answers.

Also, how do you evaluate the costs to recreate ecosystems? It might be estimated that it costs £15,000 per ha to recreate a given ecosystem – but what if there’s nowhere to recreate it because nowhere else has the same soil structure, hydrological systems or weather patterns? These and many other issues are not being dealt with satisfactorarily by those countries that are already practicing BO.

Worryingly, the UK government is pushing forward the concept of BO as part of its strategy to kickstart the economy by promoting infrastructure development. But BO will never get away from the problem that once you’ve destroyed something, you’ve destroyed it forever.

FERN is an organization that specialises in tracking EU policy with a focus on forests, and it is actively raising awareness about these concerns and running a scoping study of what’s happening at EU and member state level.

Hannah Mowat from FERN told the Ecologist: “We fear that BO will be treated as a  ‘license to trash’. Since 2010, UK local governments have launched BO pilots in 6 counties, but only one offset has been made so far because local communities have been fiercely opposing offsets. Planning officers are also rejecting them due to scant evidence that ecosystems will actually be replaced.”

FERN’s concern about how BO will play out in legislation comes from its experience analysing carbon offsets, which have increased emissions, not decreased them. “The main problem is that BO, as with carbon offsetting, doesn't look at root causes of biodiversity loss, which is in large part due to bad development and weak environmental governance,” says Mowat.

Mowat argues that we need to work on better implementation of existing laws as well as ensuring that current unprotected landscapes are legally safeguarded. Communities should also have a greater say in environmental decisions, to balance out corporate interests. Instead, she warns, BO may be taking us backwards, weakening both that legislation and community voices.

Sadly, as this article goes to press, the ‘Environment Bank’ (the government’s BO broker) has announced that the UK’s first BO scheme is to go ahead in Oxfordshire where the developer Taylor Wimpey will pay £51,000 to replace a chalk meadow with an offset project that has only a 15 year management plan.

The consultation on Biodiversity Offsetting in the UK is now open for 9 weeks. Click here to have your say.

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