What lies beneath – why the principles behind biodiversity offsetting are exactly what we need

Julia Baker

Biodiversity offsetting is controversial: people suspect it of being an easy way for developers to buy their way out of conservation requirements.  Yet the good practice principles of offsetting provide several advantages over the current system, and could be the fresh start we desperately need to reach our 2020 target of halting biodiversity loss.


Four years left

The turn of the year was a bleak reminder that we only have four years left to achieve the EU Biodiversity Strategy’s target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020.  And not only that - four years to turnaround the finding from the mid-term 2020 review, which found that “no significant progress” was being made.  But four years to do what exactly? Review the literature and the culprit is easy to find – development is taking our green spaces and not accounting for their true value to our wellbeing and our planet.  But this has been the story for a while now and we’re still losing biodiversity despite many initiatives to address the issue.  So it’s time to look again at what’s really going on and what can we do about it.

Protecting some, but not all

Working within industry, the main difficulty I face is a legal and planning system that protects some, but not all, wildlife.  While certain species are extensively protected, many are not, with the consequence that development can be ‘legally compliant’ but still cost us biodiversity.  We need policies that guard against this ‘silo species protection’ and make it an absolute requirement that development causes no overall loss of biodiversity (and even brings a benefit where possible).  We also need to recognise that while development plays a major role in stopping biodiversity loss, development itself is not the problem: it’s the system that’s faulty.

Set the bar

‘No net loss’ of biodiversity and using the Mitigation Hierarchy to achieve it – that’s my first conversation with a developer when using the biodiversity offset framework.  A development project might not use offsetting after first avoiding and then minimizing and redressing biodiversity losses on site.  But it will account for biodiversity losses that are not currently picked up by legal and planning systems.  This is worlds away from the existing system for ‘protecting’ wildlife and a vast improvement on business-as-usual.

Principled approach

The biodiversity offset framework (not the last-resort offsetting, but the framework itself) has many other advantages over the current system.  Put simply, offsetting is an approach driven by principles.  At the moment we have guidelines, handbooks and other such documents about compensating for biodiversity losses from a development project.  These are based on extensive, thorough and good ecological research.  But principles including equity, transparency, stakeholder participation, additionality and ‘in perpetuity’ are what developers sign up to when using the offset framework. These principles have been developed by the Business and Biodiversity Offset Programme and, here in the UK, by our government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) (see below).  They set a strong foundation for offsets that are appropriate and actually benefit biodiversity, and have really made a difference to my work.  I finally have enough traction to move away from decision-making behind closed doors towards development linked with and contributing to nature conservation priorities, towards genuine partnerships between developers and conservation groups, and towards greater attention to local wildlife and habitat losses.  This is how offsetting is making things better.

Good practice principles of biodiversity offsetting

  • Limit what can be offset
  • Apply the Mitigation Hierarchy
  • Achieve no net loss as the minimum, and a net gain where possible
  • Apply science and knowledge
  • Set offsets within the landscape context for nature conservation
  • Make ‘additional’ outcomes for conservation
  • Deliver real and long-term benefits for biodiversity, preferably in perpetuity
  • Address difficulty, uncertainty and risk
  • Ensure stakeholder participation
  • Stay local
  • Provide value
  • Ensure equity
  • Maintain transparency

Recognising the challenges

While I believe in the offset framework, it has its challenges.  Thankfully there is a growing evidence-base that helps to understand and address these (for example see Biodiversity Offsets in Theory and in Practice).  In my experience the greatest challenge is getting the right trade-off between offsetting locally (especially important for local people and for species with limited home ranges) versus offsetting further away to deliver landscape-scale benefits for conservation.  So while our collective learning continues, my focus is on recognising the challenges and facilitating partnerships between developers, local government, conservation organisations and land owners so that all can agree on the best approach.

What now?

There’s a great paper by IUCN that describes how to make offset outcomes better.  Its recommendations include applause from the conservation community for voluntary offset efforts, support for attempts to achieve ‘no net loss’ through good practice, and constructive criticism given within a safe learning environment.  I couldn’t agree more.  Many are quick to criticise offsetting without seeing its potential or achievements.  While development steam rolls ahead, it’s the only mechanism bringing ‘no net loss’ to the table and it’s a principles-driven approach.  From where I stand within industry, that gives us a far better chance of addressing the real causes of biodiversity loss.