|Biodiversity offsetting - difficult to measure|
Defra have acknowledged that England faces the twin challenges of simultaneously growing its economy and improving its natural environment. Added to this is the need to ensure the planning system also delivers on the environmental front. Biodiversity offsetting has been mooted as one potential solution to these environmental challenges.
So what on earth is biodiversity offsetting? Well it a system whereby developers can attempt to compensate for losses of biodiversity on a particular site by generating ecologically equivalent gains elsewhere.
My immediate thoughts on this are that it places substantial faith in the ability of restoration to recover lost biodiversity. It also potentially increases the chances of gaining planning permission on important wildlife areas, because there is the promise of “restoring” the habitat elsewhere in a more “convenient” place. Many are very worried about this saying that it is simply a “licence to trash”.
Tom Tew, chief executive of the Environment Bank which is the company acting as the independent broker between planners and developers said, "I think many completely misunderstand how biodiversity offsetting works. It is not a licence to trash, it is the complete opposite. When you put a value on biodiversity, you are putting a financial incentive for developers not to trash it." He said: "If done well, it could be one of the most beneficial schemes for wildlife in the last 30 years."
It has been said that if you create one wetland to replace another one you have filled in just across the road, they will never be the same, no matter what species inhabit them. In the deepest ecological sense, ‘like-for-like’ trading of nature isn’t possible. I think this is my worry; It does depend on what you are attempting to replace.
If for instance, you are looking to build a new housing estate on arable land, that will also destroy a small copse and an adjacent pond, maybe a brand new, well designed wetland area with ponds and scrapes, plus a new woodland planting a short distance away, might potentially compensate for these habitat losses. However, I remember when the entrance to the Channel tunnel in Kent was being constructed and the total destruction of an ancient woodland took place. But all was OK because they removed the surface layer of the forest floor and carefully “replaced it” onto some land close by, for it to re-grow. Like for like? You must be joking.
The basic premise underlying the biodiversity offsetting system is that it results in a net gain for biodiversity. But do we really have sufficient guidelines and knowledge to measure this “net gain”? Currently, I don’t think we do.
Specific biodiversity offsetting pilot schemes, running in six areas in England since April 2012, have already influenced government thinking and will continue to do so. Defra have now released a Green Paper on biodiversity offsetting in England and opened their consultation on the same subject. They have outlined their proposal for a system and are now seeking views about how best it could operate.
But hurry if you want to say your bit - the consultation finishes on the 7th of November – see: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/biodiversity/biodiversity_offsetting