Biodiversity Offsetting: quid pro grow?

On 9 May, Owen Paterson (Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) welcomed over 100 delegates to a Defra summit on biodiversity offsetting. Although this was a relatively short event, the level of agreement amongst speakers and the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm gave a useful indicator of the political significance of this agenda and the questions that will need to be answered as policy is developed.

Biodiversity offsetting is not a new concept, and many international examples exist – Paterson reported on his visit to Australia earlier this year, including mandatory schemes in Victoria and voluntary approaches in New South Wales. But the UK context of using such an approach to help grow the economy gives a slightly different flavour here, and newspaper headlines have warned about the risks of inadvertently producing a ‘license to trash’ in order to support economic growth.

Paterson emphasised throughout the summit that his dual interests were in growing the rural economy whilst actively improving the environment – he stressed several times that these should not be in tension, and that one should help with the other. There was an emphasis throughout that the current system is simply not delivering improvements for nature – mere protection was not sufficient now, given the depleted state of the environment in many areas.

The Secretary of State signaled that there was preliminary Cabinet Office support for exploring biodiversity offsetting, and that he wanted to publish a consultation on this area in the future, including through events such as this summit. The government is also due to respond shortly to the Ecosystems Markets Taskforce final report which includes exploration of biodiversity offsetting as a recommendation – it is reasonable to assume that the response will give further indication of what might happen next.

Speakers from the high-profile discussion panel included:

  • Dieter Helm (Natural Capital Committee), who noted the need for confidence in measuring techniques and the need to ensure that offsetting is visibly effective;
  • David Hill (Ecosystem Markets Taskforce), who felt that such a system would need to be mandatory to be effective, but could be eased through the purchase of conservation credits; the first two offset trades had been carried out as part of a pilot, which gave proof of concept;
  • Stephanie Hilborne (Wildlife Trusts), who highlighted the loss of abundance as well as biodiversity, and stressed the need to ‘get the details right’ – there would also be a huge need for ecological expertise within local authorities. She noted that approaches in marine offsetting would need to be particularly cautious given that less was known about effects here;
  • John Slaughter (Home Builders Federation), who argued that offsetting should be a positive option for developers – not just a new tax on development. There was also a need for the system to work more swiftly than current planning processes, and a possible tension with the national need for affordable housing if this became a particularly onerous process;
  • Kerry ten Kate (Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme), who explained that it was important to develop a clear set of conservation priorities to inform when developments on one kind of habitat could be offset by improvements in a very different environment. A three tier system could help to ensure that the scale of the process was proportional to the significance of the development – light-touch approaches could involve simple purchase of credits with no delay, but larger schemes would need independent review.

Discussions between the panel and the audience highlighted the following questions and areas for further thought:

  • The need for offsetting to be seen as a last resort – after avoidance and mitigation of impacts
  • The need for offsets to be relatively local to the development to support local community access to nature and avoid further areas of ‘nature deficit disorder’
  • The need to maintain offsets in perpetuity rather than re-offset again at a later date – this could perhaps be achieved through establishing trust funds
  • The need to ensure that all of the ‘pieces of the puzzle’ are in place before a scheme is made mandatory – including expertise in local authorities, and the availability of areas to use as offsets through a credit system
  • The need to ensure that there are still conservation areas that are beyond consideration of offsetting – SSSIs are priceless in this sense, and some types of habitat are simply irreplaceable on a short or medium timescale
  • The need to ensure the biodiversity metrics are appropriate

What do you think? What other issues should be explored in a consultation? How can we make sure that the aim of improving the environment is actually delivered by an offsetting scheme?