I trust you had a fine Bank Holiday weekend.  Mine included a couple of excellent dawn(ish) choruses and feels as though it has extended a bit as this morning I shall be hosting Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, at one of our reserves, Old Hall Marshes in Essex.  I am looking forward to it.  Lots of sunshine and lots of wildlife will help us both.  Which is good as there is a lot to discuss!

Here is one issue.

Back in January, I set out some of our views about this issue after the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, revealed to The Times his interest in establishing a scheme that offers planners the powers to ‘offset’ the impacts of development, thus removing apparent barriers to economic growth.  Since then, the pressures to remove environmental barriers to economic growth have only increased (see here and here).  It’s also apparent that interest in offsets is unabated.  Over the last few months, the Government’s Ecosystems Markets Task Force and its Natural Capital Committee have both recommended serious consideration be given to the idea.  The Environment Secretary’s enthusiasm to learn more has recently taken him half way round the world to find out about Australia’s approach to offsets.

So, I thought it was time to return to the subject again.  Given the Environment Secretary’s recent trip to Australia, I’m really pleased to welcome Sam Vine, Head of Conservation at BirdLife Australia, to reflect on their experience of the offsets debate with their national and state governments.  Tomorrow, I’ll set out some more of our views.

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Globally, biodiversity is in crisis. Bird species are in decline all around the world. The task of arresting, and ultimately reversing, this decline is urgent.

At the same time, governments are increasingly promoting biodiversity ‘offsets’ as a way to enable both conservation and development. They claim that offsets can achieve ‘no net loss’, or even ‘net gain’, in biodiversity or species habitat. Sounds good in theory, but does it work? And are our policy makers and developers really up to the challenge?

The idea that we can create new habitat to replace what will be lost as part of a development is an appealing one. We know it is at least possible to create some habitat for some species some of the time. Many recovery programs for threatened species focus on restoring lost habitat. However, in most circumstances the process of delivering full and valid ‘offsets’ for species habitat are often untested, require long lag times for habitat to ‘come online’, and are too costly to recreate habitat at an appropriate scale.

So even where it is theoretically feasible, history demonstrates that offset programs rarely benefit nature. In fact, there are many documented cases where offsetting has been used to justify the destruction of irreplaceable natural habitat. Qualitative assessments of biodiversity-offset programs demonstrate that they rarely meet the objectives they were established to achieve.

To effectively counter-balance a development impact, a biodiversity offset must deliver the same amount of the same biodiversity or habitat values as are to be lost. But the entire range of natural values and processes on any given piece of earth are complex and are not fully understood. When devising offset schemes, the natural processes need to be understood not just in the “here and now” but well into the future. The complexity and uncertainty involved make it very difficult to plan and to verify offsets in a way that ensures a true ecological counter-balance.

Nonetheless, a vogue for market-based approaches to biodiversity conservation is driving the development of offset schemes around the world.  Here in Australia, our Commonwealth and state governments are increasingly trying to implement their policy goals of reversing biodiversity decline by ‘offsetting’ damage to threatened species habitat.

 This approach sends the wrong message that our most threatened species and special places are tradable commodities. Furthermore, offset programs will inevitably lead to the loss of genetic diversity. Genetic diversity provides threatened species critical adaptation possibilities and resilience to the impacts of climate change. These issues have been largely ignored by governments in the ardent hope that they can have their cake and eat it too.

Our governments are taking up offsets schemes with gusto. BirdLife Australia have responded pragmatically. We have engaged with policy makers with the objective of improving policy and processes. We have developed a list of criteria for an offset proposal to be considered a valid offset. These criteria are based on the best available science and expertise within the Australian context. They are technically prescriptive and complex, but we make no apologies for this. If governments are serious about achieving their stated objective of conserving biodiversity, offset programs must meet these robust criteria and ensure ‘no net loss’. Anything less will amount to the facilitation of habitat destruction at the expense of environmental protection.

Image captions and credits:

Top: Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo – habitat offsets are required for this endangered species’, yet monitoring indicates it has declined by 40% since 2010, probably due to continued habitat loss and degradation.  [Image: Robyn Pickering]

Bottom: Plains Wanderer – offsets are problematic for this vulnerable species as it relies on specialised grassland habitat that cannot be replicated [Image: Chris Tzaros]

 

  • It really is very hard to know what exactly the Biodiversity Minister will learn from his trip to Australia apart from adding "x"tons of CO2; we know from British experience of "compensation and mitigation" what is broadly possible and how much broadly is not. This is reinventing the wheel with the camouflage of new jargon, broadly speaking nature is irreplaceable and we know broadly speaking what we can recreate in UK.

    This sort of trip was a polluting "jolly" and I suspect little has been learned. Maybe he could tell us exactly what?