Biodiversity offsetting in disguise? UK launches new consultation

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The horseshoe bat is a protected species in the UK

The horseshoe bat is a protected species in the UK

It’s become increasingly obvious that not enough is being done to protect our biodiversity, which is threatened by new infrastructure and housing projects. Policymakers have been grappling with this conundrum for some time. One option they seem to like is the idea of compensating for habitats or species that are lost by creating more to replace them, often in a different location. This is known as ‘biodiversity offsetting’.

The UK seems to be pushing ahead with this approach, in the face of its own evidence.

After carrying out pilot schemes in six English counties and gauging public opinion, the UK government has failed to provide evidence that biodiversity offsetting is either effective or popular.

Yet, they’ve just opened a new consultation on four proposed policies, three of which seem to be ‘offsetting in disguise’. Designed to deal with habitat loss for protected species, the proposed policies seem to be looking for ways to make it easier for developers to deal with protected species (and in particular great crested newts) on their building plots.

UK evidence so far on biodiversity offsetting

The report on the government’s pilot schemes and the original public consultation have cast doubt on offsetting as a viable policy for biodiversity protection. The emphasis of biodiversity policy-making should be on benefits for biodiversity, not benefits for business. The reports raise some key questions that need to be addressed before offsetting is pushed any further:

1. How should the relative value of biodiversity be calculated?
Offsetting requires knowing that the replacement habitat is at least as valuable (from a biodiversity point of view) as the one lost. The current ‘metric’ for working out the value of nature is undeniably crude, and fails to take an ecosystem-based approach: for example, it ignores the importance of connected habitats. Only 11% of respondents to the original consultation felt the metric was suitable in its current form.

2. How much does it cost?
None of the pilot areas had managed to actually get round to doing any offsetting by the time the report was written. So we don’t know how much offsetting actually costs. It is likely to be expensive, and this is likely to be seen as problematic by developers.

3. How long should biodiversity offsets be maintained for?
Most people agree that habitats created through offsetting should be maintained ‘in perpetuity’. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on what ‘perpetuity’ means. Don’t bother reaching for your dictionary: it does normally mean ‘forever’, but was defined by one pilot area as meaning as little as 30 years.

The introduction of ‘conservation covenants’ – legal agreements that would bind landowners to protect biodiversity in offset areas – received overwhelming support in the consultation (85%). The law is certainly a necessary tool in the protection of biodiversity.

4. Can nature always be substituted?
Can the destruction of an ancient forest be simply ‘offset’? Can biodiversity always be traded ‘like for like’? According to 227 people who answered the consultation response, no, it can’t. These people took the time to give examples of nature they think can’t be replaced. But Defra chose to ignore these responses because they came via an online campaign. However, the fact that there are irreplaceable parts of the natural world is undeniable. Currently, ClientEarth is having this conversation about the Białowieża Forest in Poland.

Hidden offsetting

These four serious underlying questions need to be addressed in order for offsetting to work. Despite this, the policies in the present consultation head towards greater flexibility for developers – offering them a chance to use offsetting-style techniques to meet their legal requirements to not disturb protected species.

This latest consultation outlines four policies which refer to ‘wildlife licensing’ and ‘compensatory habitats’. Three of these policies are clearly offsetting by another name. Designed to deal with habitat loss for protected species, they seem to be looking for ways to make it easier for businesses to deal with species such as great crested newts.

Although the report on the pilot schemes and the original consultation did highlight the need to reconsider the treatment of protected species within offsetting projects, this was hardly their identified priority. Given the searching questions posed by the reports, the UK government should address these before continuing to push offsetting as an appropriate tool for biodiversity protection.

The priority of biodiversity policy-making must remain the protection of our species and our habitats. Saving businesses time and money is certainly a desirable byproduct of any environmental policy, but cannot be the primary goal. The latest government consultation seems to be geared towards the latter rather than the former.

We will respond to the consultation to get this message across. In doing so, we will reinforce the value of law when it comes to protecting species and habitats.

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