Photo Credit Royal Society

The Government’s consultation on biodiversity offsetting in England is a hot topic, with last week featuring no less than three separate events on the subject in as many days. The Royal Society was first in line, hosting a sold out PolicyLab event which brought together policy makers, ecologists, land developers and conservation scientists to discuss how (and indeed ‘if’) the proposed scheme for future land developments, as set out in the Government’s green paper, could work in England.

The diverse panel – comprising Professor of Conversation, EJ Milner-Gulland; Kerry ten Kate, Director of both Forest Trends and Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP); Environment Bank Chief Executive, Tom Tew; Friends of the Earth (FoE) Nature Campaigner, Sandra Bell and Conservation Director at RSPB, Martin Harper – had 7 minutes each to present their perspective on biodiversity offsetting. This was followed by a stimulating and lively debate that spilled over into drinks and continued late into the evening.

Live tweeting from our @RSocLive account (#RSbiodiversity) I endeavoured to keep pace with the wealth of salient information that each speaker imparted, but Event Chair Charles Godfray kept proceedings running smoothly with an apt ‘biodiversity themed’ duck quack (!) alarm when time was up. In brief:

  • Professor Milner-Gulland’s comprehensive overview of biodiversity offsetting set an excellent framework for discussion, drawing on examples of existing biodiversity schemes from across the globe and presenting some of the challenges that exist in trying to establish how  No Net Loss (NNL) can be developed (read more on her thoughts in her pre-event guest blog).
  • Kerry ten Kate followed this theme, elaborating on the methodologies for delivering NNL. Her personal experiences told a cautionary tale, stressing the need for “clear, unambiguous, streamlined requirements for no net loss” to be established at the outset if future schemes are to succeed.
  • Tom Tew was strongly in favour of biodiversity offsetting, and presented his own company’s vision for how a such a scheme might work.
  • This vision met strong opposition from Sandra Bell, who expressed concerns, not only for impact on the environment, but also for the potential cultural and social implications of establishing offsets in locations far removed from the areas of development.
  • Martin Harper rounded up the presentations with a fantastic time-lapse video of a compensatory habitat replacement scheme at Medmerry in Sussex to counteract the loss of tidal habitat that has been affected by ‘coastal squeeze’ (the erosion of inter-tidal land trapped between hard sea defences and rising sea levels). The RSPB believe it can serve to offset many small losses, developing robust conservation initiatives that may even go as far as achieving net gain.
Photo credit Royal Society

The panel were in agreement that current planning strategies are lacking and (with the exception of FoE) that biodiversity offsetting represents a tractable way forward for future sustainable development. The ‘mitigation hierarchy’ (avoid, mitigate, restore or rehabilitate and offset) and ‘metrics’ were recurring themes in the presentations. The requirement to establish and monitor biodiversity offsetting schemes effectively emerged as a critical but complex issue.

The Q&A broadened the discussion into challenging concepts such as ecosystem ranking and the role of biodiversity offsetting in agricultural developments. The cultural and social value of nature, discrete from its biodiversity value, also received attention, as did the concept of broadening biodiversity offsetting schemes out to a global scale.

Overall the informative and well-balanced debate brought out many interesting and important views on biodiversity offsetting – a scheme that is both conceptually and practically difficult to get right.

Defra’s consultation closes on 7th November 2013.

An audio recording from the Biodiversity Offsettting event, is available now on our PolicyLab meeting page.