Biodiversity offsetting – nature’s consolation prize

Environmentalists in Scotland and the UK should demand more than the chance to offset biodiversity destruction.

Charlotte Wrigley
16 June 2014

When you spend a lot of time discussing environmental issues, one thing becomes abundantly clear: conservation objectives are difficult to argue against. When expressing my concerns over current environmental management practices, I’m frequently asked; “So you don’t want habitat protection?”, or told; “We have to put these measures in place or our most important species will go extinct”. My personal favourite is; “We might as well get something out of it”, as if accepting that the environment coming merely second-to-last in the development debate is something to celebrate.

All of these statements have been uttered in one guise or another over the current discussion on biodiversity offsetting, which involves mitigating any potential destruction of habitat or ecosystem due to development by buying an area of land to either translocate the affected species to, or to restore the area to a similar ecological habitat. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) debated the issue recently in London Zoo of all places (the irony of natural entities being caged in has not been lost on me). The conference aimed to set up a framework of offsetting standards, and followed guidelines issued in the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy, in which targets include ‘maintaining and restoring ecosystems and their services’ and ‘no net loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services’.

There are a couple of red flags in these targets, mainly the use of the term ‘ecosystem services’ in both examples. A seemingly innocuous phrase, ecosystem services is an umbrella term for the ways humanity benefits from the services provided by the environment – namely, clean water, flood control, air quality etc. In general, the greater the biodiversity of an area, the better the services will be they provide. “Great!” the advocates cry, “We get to save the environment and benefit ourselves. It’s win-win!” – and thus the great neoliberal myth is propagated; that a finite resource can continue to grow so long as the correct value is placed on it.

In reality, the danger of promoting this extremely anthropocentric idea means a shudder to our entire value system. At the ‘Nature is not for sale’ forum (organised as a response to the DEFRA conference), the environmental philosopher John O’Neill managed to sum up the situation brilliantly in an anecdote from famous socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor, who once said in an interview when asked how she managed to keep her husband young and healthy: “Why, I swap them for a newer model every few years”. This neatly encapsulates the distinction between de re and de dicto philosophy, which we can apply to the concept of ecosystem services. In Gabor’s case, she desired only that her husband, whoever he may be, be young and healthy (de dicto), as opposed to wanting her specific husband to be young and healthy (de re). Within the ecosystem services framework, the valuation system has shifted from de re, where our desire was for the ecosystem to be biodiverse and healthy, to de dicto, where our desire is to gain the ecosystem services provided, regardless of how or where they may be. Biodiversity offsetting underpins this notion, disregarding any attachments to place and identity, alongside the very dangerous possibility of descending into ‘allowable natural destruction’, and further commodifies nature into a package that can be bought and sold for human consumption.

Scotland’s involvement in biodiversity offsetting has been minimal so far, but the DEFRA conference is likely to change that should Scotland remain part of the UK, and even if not, Holyrood will likely create a strategy of its own. The Borders Council have already trialled offsetting on grouse heather moorland and wetland areas, and a workshop on offsetting last year suggested a push for Scotland to embrace the practice. In my opinion, this should be avoided, and below are several (hopefully) reasoned arguments against what I feel to be a very dangerous Pandora’s box:

1. The planning system in Scotland
One of the main positives that proponents of biodiversity offsetting – usually the developers – are keen to extol is how it would simplify the planning system. Instead of having to conduct rigorous environmental assessments, offset sites can merely be bought and sold on the market like regular commodities. And with no mandatory metric system in place, there is little the planning authorities can do to enforce the quality or longevity of these sites. Also, unlike England, the Scottish single tier planning system means that local councils have very little power over the bigger developments (which are likely to be the most environmentally destructive), which means that the people most affected by this have the least power. The planning system already favours big businesses and landowners, so limiting community action even further is certainly not the direction we need to take.

2. Very little structure for enforcement
The reason why offsetting has seen some success in the United States has been down to their stringent enforcement hierarchy, which makes mitigation an absolute last resort. There is no such system in place for Scotland (and the rest of the UK) as of yet, and pushing through offsetting as a viable option without setting clear targets and contracts can only lead to a slippery slope of what actually constitutes compensation. It is very difficult to assess a healthy ecosystem, and if there are loopholes, it is likely a developer will use them in order to shrug responsibility. It is also important to prevent cases such as Scottish Coal, who were given permission to mine a site providing they mitigated the damage elsewhere. Before they could do this, the company went bankrupt, leaving no money whatsoever for the promised mitigation.

3. Ignoring unmeasurables such as sense of place and identity
While ecosystem health is indeed difficult to measure and value, it is achievable in theory (the success of the practice remains to be seen). However, what is much more difficult to measure, and I’d argue impossible to place a monetary value on, is a sense of place and identity. Many people feel connected to the land around them, and often areas of natural beauty are extremely important to well-being, health and recreation. Irreversibly changing these areas creates a sense of loss that is impossible to replace, especially as there is no guarantee that offset sites will be in the vicinity of the developed site.

4. Entrenching inherently unfair land ownership structures
One of the most worrying aspects of the biodiversity offsetting strategy is the creation of habitat banking. This involves a landowner setting aside an area for the potential of offsets, restoring the ecosystem back to health, and then selling off the land to developers as and when they need it. It removes responsibility from the developer, who merely has to hand over the cash, and it removes that land from any contestations of ownership. The landowner has pocketed a hefty sum for very little work, the developer is happy, and the people who live on or around that land are left even more marginalised than before, with what little hope they had of ever owning it obliterated. Green-grabbing is common practice for rich developers in the global south, but its fundamentals are the same when happening outside your front door – it is still extremely unfair.

5. Accepting your fate
Returning to my frustration in common conservationist attitudes that ‘we need to get what we can’, this attitude promotes a dangerous justification of the commodification of nature. The idea of ‘this is the system we have, we have to work with it’ has not worked so far, so to continue to believe that merely rebranded neoliberal schemes to ‘save nature’ will work is naïve at best, and it means the system continues to expand without contest. A key example in Scotland is the Donald Trump golf course, which was built on an SSSI despite a bitter protest from local residents. A speaker at the biodiversity workshop reasoned, had offsets been in place at the time; ‘we could have extracted some money from him’. This attitude is defeatist, yet common, in a world where environmental concerns have taken a back seat to capital-driven investment for a very long time.

Whilst all these arguments are important, it is the attitude of conservationists and environmentalists that must change if we are to truly make a difference in protecting the natural world. Accepting that we must play the game of nature commodification, only to end up with a consolation prize is not good enough. In order to safeguard the environment beyond the short term, we have to change the rules.

 This piece first appeared on Charlotte's blog

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