Achieving no net loss of something or other

In this guest blog post, Bruce Howard, the NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow on biodiversity offsetting, gives his take on BBOP’s ‘To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond’ conference recently held in London. Bruce is based at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Representatives of over 30 countries gathered on 3rd and 4th June for the first global conference on approaches to avoid, minimise, restore and offset biodiversity loss. This sequence of four activities, known as the mitigation hierarchy, is crucial to protecting ‘biodiversity’ from the impacts of building things on the ground or at sea.

The conference, which was spearheaded by the Business and Biodiversity Offsets (BBOP) Programme, was entitled To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond. No net loss of biodiversity is what many believe should result from correct application of the mitigation hierarchy. The idea was used as part of the rationale for Defra’s 2013 Green Paper on plans to bring about greater use of biodiversity offsetting in England.

The discussions at the conference demonstrated that while the logic of the mitigation hierarchy is accepted widely, the assessment of whether it is being applied will always be subjective. For example, does avoidance include development proposals that were abandoned before they were properly documented? Similarly, is minimisation just sensible environmental planning?

Most delegates appeared to agree that biodiversity offsets are a last resort at the end of the mitigation hierarchy. There were, however, differences of opinion among participants about the effect of the option of offsetting on steps further up the hierarchy. Some at the conference claimed that offsets provided an incentive to drive up standards throughout the mitigation hierarchy, not least because of the costs involved.  Others would disagree, or at least argue that the evidence for this among all the offset schemes worldwide is lacking.

The conference contained a mix of parochial and planetary considerations. In a plenary debate about the pros and cons of including offsets in the mitigation hierarchy, Tom Tew, Chief Executive of the Environment Bank asserted that offsetting for England was not about “saving the planet” but rather “introducing environmental accountability into [spatial] planning”. This down-to-earth view contrasted with the more general and global view of others. Overall, the conference made clear that where offsets are permitted, success or failure of offsets will always depend on the circumstances. These include the availability of data to establish an ecological baseline, the extent of good governance and the technical merits of restoration proposals.

Strangely, there was little discussion among conference participants as to exactly what the biodiversity we don’t want to lose actually is. The Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Braullio Dias, spoke about the roles of biodiversity in health and poverty eradication but not its identity. The CBD’s definition of biodiversity, which focuses on variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are part, is giving way to the view that it is all things that people value about nature. Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development made the provocative claim that biodiversity is a “meaningless” term in the goal-oriented world of business.  Without clarity on what we are trying to protect in diverse situations around the world, it will be impossible to monitor progress towards any no net loss goal.

The idea of no net loss perhaps found greatest meaning in a keynote speech by the Environment Minister for Gabon, Noel Nelson Messone. He set out a vision for protecting his country’s natural resources by means of extensive protected areas and bans on the export of raw commodities. No net loss of virgin forest in Central Africa is far more tangible as a goal than the avoidance of overall biodiversity loss around the UK.

A business roundtable on day two focused on building a business case for biodiversity and putting no net loss into practice within the private sector. The businesses represented had many different approaches to biodiversity protection, ranging from accounting for impacts along supply chains to the application of the mitigation hierarchy. The need for more partnerships between businesses and nature-based NGOs and governments was identified.  At a session on safeguards, standards and tools for biodiversity protection, the need for trained ecologists with good communication and negotiation skills was noted.

The conference was entitled To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond. The ‘beyond’ was perhaps an allusion to the idea of net gain. However, until we can deliver no net loss for the something or other that we call biodiversity, the achievement of net gain will remain a task for future generations.