Could “biodiversity offsetting” help to get Britain building?

“Biodiversity offsetting” has become the latest buzz phrase in the world of environmental conservation. David Kingman explains…Sunflower against industrial background

Is one piece of the natural environment worth the same as another? This is the principle behind biodiversity offsetting (BO), a new mechanism which, it is hoped, could help to balance the benefits to humans of allowing developments with the environmental damage which they can cause.

So, what is BO? And how does it work?

“Licence to trash?”

The basic idea behind BO is that if developers want to build on a piece of land which is environmentally significant in some way, then they could be allowed to do so as long as they offset the environmental damage this will cause by paying money towards some kind of conservation scheme somewhere else.

For example, if they wanted to build on a greenfield site, such as a woodland, then they could compensate for the loss of the trees which need to be removed by paying for new trees to be planted somewhere else. The goals of BO are clear: to enable more building by neutralising environmental objections to new projects, and to prevent developments from harming the environment.

The idea of offsetting environmental damage has been increasingly in vogue around the world in recent years. In particular, carbon offsetting – where major producers of greenhouse gasses pay to balance out the harm they cause to the planet in return for the right to pollute – has been the basis of a number of different national and regional attempts to ameliorate global warming, including the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

Unfortunately, environmentalists still aren’t satisfied. BO has been criticised for providing developers with a “licence to trash” by opponents, who make two main accusations against the scheme. Firstly, BO (like other environmental offsetting schemes) appears to be based on an assumption that the destruction of one piece of the natural environment can be compensated for directly by improving the natural environment somewhere else, but the complexity of the natural world means that things are unlikely to be this straightforward in reality.

Secondly, concerns have been raised that BO would enable a developer to simply earmark a certain sum of money towards the environmental costs of its operations at the beginning of the project, and then it would have no incentive to do anything else to minimise the environmental impacts of what they are doing.

BO would also require us to be able to put a value on environmental goods in some way, which could be very tricky (if not virtually impossible), and to calculate adequate ways of substituting one environmental good for another. Has the environment been adequately compensated for the loss of a species in one area if it facilitates the conservation of a different species somewhere else?

According to the BBC article in the above link, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) selected six areas in England back in 2012 to conduct two-year trials of BO, and these appear to have been a success. A report earlier this year recommended that the scheme ought to be extended, and could form a vital part of the government’s conservation strategy, but following recent announcements BO now appears to have been shelved until the end of the year, and there is a chance that it may never see the light of day at all.

The right approach?

While it’s easy to spot the potential problems with BO, there is no doubt that something needs to happen in order to get Britain building again, as the country has a dire need for more houses and better infrastructure. Given that it is impossible to reconcile this need with maintaining every single part of the countryside to the same environmental standard that prevails currently, BO could have the makings of being a perfectly reasonable method for enabling us to focus development in those areas where need is greatest, while providing extra resources for conservation in those areas that we can afford to leave in a more natural state.

It may be hoped that the idea will be revisited by the government in the future, because at the moment there seems to be an enormous bias in favour of preserving every last part of the natural environment in Britain, whatever the potential cost to younger and future generations of us not building enough. Of course, some might argue that preserving the natural environment is the most important responsibility we have towards future generations, but given the scale of the housing crisis facing today’s young, clearly some difficult choices are going to have to be made.