Biodiversity offsetting: the science behind the policy

The Government's Ecosystems Markets Task Force has put biodiversity offsetting amongst its top five priorities, saying that "it is about regulation, developing a well-defined market which delivers 'net gain' for nature". Dr Bruce Howard, who specialises in Biodiversity Offsetting at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), explains how CEH provides the independent and impartial scientific advice needed by this increasingly important policy measure.

Biodiversity offsetting is the term used for agreements that compensate, in measurable ways, for the losses to habitats and species that result from developments such as housing, railways and airports. It is being used or trialled in more than 20 countries worldwide. There is growing interest in the use of biodiversity offsets in the UK, especially in England. A voluntary approach to biodiversity offsetting was a commitment in the Natural Choice – the Government's environment White Paper published in 2011. In response, here at CEH we are gearing up to ensure that our data and expertise in monitoring and restoring biodiversity play their part in informing decisions about the greater use of offsetting in the UK.New office development

In its 2010 report on financing nature conservation, the RSPB's economists expressed similar aspirations when they said that a "strong biodiversity offset market has the potential to reduce environmental damage from development, simplify the planning system and increase funding for conservation". Nonetheless, the debate about how offsets might impact on the level of protection that the planning system provides for biodiversity is only just getting going. In a response to a 2011 Government consultation on biodiversity offsets, Wildlife and Countryside Link, a large coalition of conservation organisations, warned that "a poorly implemented offset system could have a negative effect on biodiversity."

Given all the points of view expressed, the independent and impartial scientific analysis by organisations such as CEH should play an increasingly important role. In July 2013, I was awarded a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Knowledge Exchange Fellowship on biodiversity offsetting. Over the coming three years, I will be drawing together expertise from across NERC and beyond to address specific questions important for offset implmentation. These include:

  • Most nature conservationists are behind the goal of reversing trends in biodiversity decline, aiming for no overall loss of biodiversity in a particular area, or the country as a whole. Advocates of biodiversity offsetting are motivated by this too. But what role will offsets play in achieving this? The jury will be out for some time yet.
  • How can individual species be safeguarded within offset agreements based on habitat? It is not as easy as one might think to establish a population of anything, from adders to yellowhammers, even if an offset site is created and managed by the very best experts.

Working alongside me, Dr Lisa Norton is piloting decision support tools that could be used to inform decisions about how and where to initiate biodiversity offsets. And from September 2013, CEH's Dr Tom Oliver will be developing an indicator of the 'ecological status' of parcels of land. This will consider species that are not on the Government's priority list of species and could help to inform choices about where biodiversity offsets can occur. CEH also has much experience in the area of how the biodiversity value of land can be improved – this is an important requirement for offset creation.

As the UK's Centre of Excellence for integrated research in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, CEH has a unique mix of datasets capable of informing the design and monitoring of offset schemes. For example, our Countryside Survey, which is due to be updated in the next three years, provides the most comprehensive record of the condition of the British countryside. The Biological Records Centre, hosted by us at CEH, holds 27 million records to provide information on the status of and change in UK biodiversity.

Town and countrysideIf implementation of offsets is to deliver benefits for biodiversity in many years to come, scientific rigour will be required at every stage. This extends from the methods used to assess the biodiversity present at individual sites proposed for development, through to monitoring the long-term contribution that hundreds of 'offset' sites are making to our national biodiversity asset. After all, biodiversity is just part of a wider suite of ecosystem services which provide everyone in society with valuable natural capital – a resource whose importance is recognised, including by Government.

While the scientific rigour has its place, it should not be forgotten that nature down the street (and over the horizon) matters greatly to people. This is something that is recognised in many aspects of our work at CEH, such as our involvement in citizen science. It appears to me that there is a need to ensure that offset schemes will safeguard biodiversity (and the 'services' it provides) for people, rather than simply for the sake of meeting targets or advancing a new way of financing nature conservation.

Dr Bruce Howard

Additional information

Biodiversity Offsetting activities at CEH

Science areas: 

Issues: