Conservationists around the world are split over whether to let developers destroy green space in return for paying cash to restore equivalent space elsewhere, a meeting at London Zoo on Tuesday last week found.
Britain and 38 other countries have, or are in the process of setting in place, policies which are to allow “biodiversity offsetting,” a market system of conservation used in the US and Australia that aims to ensure that there is no net loss of nature from any development.
However, giant oil and mining companies, as well as conservationists and governments at the first global conference on offsetting, heard that evidence from projects where offsets have been used is conflicting, and that while they can be made to work, there are no guarantees of success and many examples of failures.
“There is a great deal of public distrust about offsetting biodiversity. The concept of ‘no net loss’ is seen as questionable,” said Kerry ten Kate, director of the Washington-based Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program (BBOP), which works with corporations and others to develop offsets.
“It could generate an order of magnitude greater investment in biodiversity, but it must be done well,” she said at the meeting.
The offset debate is central to future British nature conservation because British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson intends to have laws passed in the nation that would allow ancient woods, wetlands and sites of special scientific interest to be destroyed to make way for road, housing and rail developments — in return for new woods being planted or areas being flooded.
The UK government, which is analyzing six pilot projects, has been taken aback by the public reaction.
“I don’t think I have ever seen so much suspicion on either side of a debate,” said Peter Unwin, director-general of the policy delivery group at the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “Clearly we cannot trade some aspects of biodiversity for others, but business is getting engaged.”
Jonathan Baillie, conservation director at the Zoological Society of London, said: “Biodiversity offsetting is controversial. It polarizes the conservation community. There [are] going to be development and changes as world population increases from 7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. It may be appropriate to do offsets, but that should be as a last resort.”
Baillie gave the example of potential oil reserve exploitation in the world heritage-classified Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“For this there should not be offsets. There are many other examples where offsets are just not applicable,” he said.
However, Julia Martin-Lefevre, director-general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said the rights of countries to develop should be respected.
“Mining is central to many developing country governments. Offsetting must only be used as a means of last resort. It must be like-for-like. We must recognize the limits of biodiversity offsetting,” she said. “We cannot compensate for loss in world heritage sites like Virunga. Nor can projects go ahead if it means the extinction of a species. We have to take a precautionary approach.”
UK Environment Bank director Tom Tew led calls for offsetting to be embraced by environmentalists.