Biodiversity Offsets, George Monbiot, and the Nightingales of Lodge Hill

Posted by Joe Bull

Last week, George Monbiot wrote an article with the somewhat inflammatory title, “Biodiversity offsetting will release a spirit of destruction on the land”.  He was referring to the use of biodiversity offsets in the UK, which are currently being trialed as part of a two year voluntary pilot scheme. In particular, he cries foul about the proposed use of biodiversity offsets to replace lost nightingale habitat on a site called Lodge Hill, where 5000 new houses are to be built.  So – whilst this headline conclusion is one that is often leapt to by scientists and practitioners alike in relation to offsets – is he right?

‘Biodiversity offset’ policies essentially require companies to fully compensate for any ‘unavoidable’ biodiversity impacts they cause through development; for instance, clearing habitat to make way for mineral extraction.  To do so, they must create additional equivalent biodiversity somewhere nearby: by planting a woodland, digging a wetland, restoring degraded native grassland, increasing the productivity of fish spawning habitat, and so forth.

Monbiot’s main concern is that offsets will become a “license to destroy”, and the example he discusses in his article (the nightingales of Lodge Hill) does sound like a disastrous case of this. Given that the site is being considered as a potential SSSI, a point that is inexplicably disregarded by those proposing this project (download the pdf), I too find it hard to swallow that a development is being considered there.

But it is wrong, and actually irresponsible, to use one bad example to discredit and demonize an entire approach to conservation. You risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater: because in some cases, offsetting can work. Take New South Wales, Australia: since a biodiversity offset policy for native grassland was introduced there less than a decade ago, planning permission approvals for clearing this habitat have apparently dropped by 80% (download the pdf). And to date this is not even considered the most successful offset policy in Australia. That is partly because offsetting there is not in principle about “making nature as fungible as everything else” as Monbiot supposes… it is about making development in important habitats prohibitively expensive (i.e. making sure that biodiversity damage is not an economic externality), and thus preventing biodiversity loss in the first place.

Further, the point of offsetting is not to allow developers to destroy habitats or kill off species that they would not have been able to otherwise.  In fact, this point has been made repeatedly and explicitly throughout the development of the approach (download the pdf). Rather, offsetting is generally intended to provide compensation for losses that would have been permitted, but not compensated for, without the offset policy. Consequently, it is widely intended for use where biodiversity is currently falling through the cracks in the system, as a way of providing a safety net for species when they wouldn’t otherwise be protected, either in that specific case or in general. The fact that this has apparently been ignored in the Lodge Hill case (and in others) is a problem of inappropriate application of the approach, not a problem with the approach per se.  It would be like saying that protected areas are a bad approach to conservation in general, because a few unscrupulous regimes have misused them to evict people from their homes (download the pdf).

Finally; and again, Monbiot is correct; no place is like any other.  If you create one wetland to replace another one you have filled in just across the road, they will never be the same, no matter what species inhabit them.  In the deepest ecological sense, ‘like-for-like’ trading of nature isn’t possible. But to see this as only a risk, and not also an opportunity, is to be blinkered.  For instance, one key argument for using offsets is that you could require compensation from many developments that cause relatively minor biodiversity impacts across a landscape, and amalgamate this to create one huge area of new habitat of high conservation value.  Where I work, in Uzbekistan, there is a plan to do exactly that: through offsetting, compensation from various oil and gas companies for disparate clearances of native semi-arid grassland (far less than 1% of the total habitat type) will be used to restore habitat in a new nature reserve spanning over 7000 sq. km, simultaneously supporting efforts to conserve the critically endangered saiga antelope.  That isn’t ‘like-for-like’ either, but is it honestly a bad idea?

In summary: yes, offsetting has its potential flaws, yes, offsetting won’t solve all our problems, and yes, I agree we should leave the nightingales of Lodge Hill be. But it remains one very credible way, if used appropriately, in which we can slow the loss of biodiversity worldwide.  Even some of its more vehement critics accept that it shouldn’t be excluded from the conservation toolkit. So rather than shooting biodiversity offsetting down outright (unless we offer a realistic and superior alternative) I suggest we work out how, where and when it can best be used to benefit nature.