Biodiversity offsetting – The way forward?
Earlier this year, the government announced plans to introduce biodiversity offsetting schemes to the UK. The first pilot schemes are due to begin soon, in Spring 2012, with the stated aim of testing a ‘metric based approach’ towards biodiversity conservation. As a leading Ecological Surveyors, Arbtech have welcomed the move.
Similar offsetting schemes are already in place in countries such as Australia, and the US. The way it works is that developers can ‘buy’ the right to remove habitat, provided that they then enhance or create another habitat area. Many global schemes achieve this with a credit system, in which the developer buys credits in conservation projects in return for any habitat loss caused.
How the system will work in practice when it is launched remains unknown, with even Defra’s July 2011 ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’ Technical Paper conceding, “Applying biodiversity offsetting in England would be a new and innovative approach, and there are many aspects which we don’t fully understand yet.”
A risky approach?
The authors of a recent study, entitled ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’, consider any metric which translates abstract natural values into tangible and rigidly defined financial value a risky approach. They say that, “ecological processes are too complex and interlinked and present too many unknowns for us to do this without risking grave damage.”
The Ecologist meanwhile described it as, “a licence to cause ecological damage.” But could biodiversity offsetting be a better deal for the environment than the current system, whereby developers are permitted to permanently lose quality habitats in exchange for a few ecological surveys and reports? Quite possibly.
If created conscientiously and managed properly, a system of offsetting could lead to a much more sustainable situation in the UK, in which the loss of one habitat is compensated by either the creation of a new habitat space, or the enhancement and protection of other existing habitats.
A complex metric
Getting the metric itself right will be crucial to the effectiveness of the offsetting scheme. One potentially worrying point from the Defra document is that, “metrics [will be] transferable between sites and habitats, allowing an impact on one habitat type to be offset with conservation action elsewhere, or involving a different habitat type and/or quality of habitat.”
To succeed in protecting habitats and biodiversity itself, there must be measures in place to ensure that one particular type of habitat does not suffer overall across the country, while another flourishes due to offsetting. Furthermore, it must not be made possible for developers to destroy irreplaceable habitats that have developed over centuries, regardless of compensation elsewhere.
Perhaps one of the most important things is that the metric and the offsetting process in its entirety is constantly monitored and refreshed by a human element, and not left simply to rigid formulas. A guiding human hand which is focused on environmental preservation but sympathetic to developers needs must remain at all times.
The challenge for ecological consultants
The scheme is certainly a step in the right direction, at a time when the reversal of habitat loss is absolutely paramount. But despite its noble intent, one great danger of biodiversity offsetting is the commoditisation of habitat loss, and developers and politicians simply paying lip service to conservation aims, while ‘fiddling’ the system, where possible.
In order to achieve its aim, of preserving biodiversity now and in to the future, all those involved in the offsetting scheme pilot must stay true to the overarching philosophy of natural conservation that informs it.
Continued ecological functionality
Everyone, from the policy makers and planning authority officials to the developers themselves and the professionals they employ, must recall that aim in each decision they take, instead of simply adhering to a system and working it where possible. And of course, the role of qualified and experienced ecologists and habitat surveyors will be crucial in ensuring that any offsetting scheme provides a good deal for nature.