Biodiversity offsetting: making nature economically visible

Biodiversity offsetting is a method intended to help compensate for the detrimental impacts of development on biodiversity. Such an approach is designed to work by creating a credit based market that developers could use to offset actions deemed harmful to the environment by investing in habitat restoration for biodiversity elsewhere.

Today the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) hosted a seminar in Westminster to discuss the scope for implementing biodiversity offsetting in the UK. The talks bought together a number of expert speakers to explore the potential benefits and risks associated with introducing this market-based strategy as a conservation approach.

The discussion aimed to stimulate conversation on the subject of offsets, and further encourage response to DEFRA’s consultation on biodiversity offsetting for the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper which is due to be published this spring.

The seminar was led by presentations from Claire Lewis from the Biodiversity Offsetting Team at DERFA, Dr Jo Treweek of Treweek Environmental Consultants, Prof David Hill from the Environment Bank Ltd, and finally Michael Oxford speaking for the Association of Local Government Ecologists.

DEFRA said that they were not looking to develop a mandatory approach, (which many argue is required), but instead create a voluntary system in which to pilot offsetting following the consultation. Discussion then focused on how to proceed with implementing offsetting, and get it right by ensuring a simple standardised system is in place.

The role of both government (to lay out a national framework), and local authorities (to guide and monitor progress over the long term) was highlighted, as was the need to provide the capacity to do so. To bridge gaps in funding, it was suggested that all associated costs were reflected in the market value of habitat, and that only habitats of a similar value could be traded. It was recommended that restoration areas should be pooled to increase their size, and that these areas should represent an effective network within the UK.

There was discussion about avoiding the risk of providing developers with ‘a license to destroy’, which emphasised the underlying offset principle of ‘no net loss’ and reiterated that offsetting should only be used in cases where no alternative development sites are available, and when detrimental impacts cannot be mitigated on-site. Attention was also given to the fact that it is not possible to re-create all habitat types, and that there will often be a lag time before restoration is complete.

The seminar made clear that there is still a lot of research to be done in terms of valuing and measuring biodiversity appropriately. If we get it right however, offsets could represent a paradigm shift towards tackling issues in conservation by no longer looking at developers as the problem but the solution.