in European Union, UK

Biodiversity offsetting in action: Bulldoze the UK’s ancient woodlands? No problem, just plant some trees

The Right Honourable Owen Paterson MP is the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Commenting on his appointment in 2012, George Monbiot described it as “a declaration of war on the environment”.

Even judged by the standards of the UK’s Conservative Party, Paterson’s politcs are grim. He’s opposed to wind farms but in favour of fracking. He’s in favour of culling badgers and in favour of fox hunting. He’s in favour of GM food. He’s opposed to gay marriage.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) faces cuts, leaving it ill equipped to deal with the recent floods in the south of England. A Defra report points out that rising flood risk is likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the UK. But Paterson doesn’t see climate change as much of a threat. In response to the latest IPCC report he said,

“People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.
“I think the relief of this latest report is that it shows a really quite modest increase, half of which has already happened. They are talking one to two and a half degrees.”

Last week, Paterson demonstrated his environmental ignorance by announcing that developers will be allowed to destroy Britain’s ancient woodlands. All they have to do is plant 100 trees for each one felled.

This is “biodiversity offsetting” in action. In an interview with The Times Paterson said that,

“The point about offsetting is it will deliver a better environment over the long term.”

Paterson’s attempt to justify the bulldozing of ancient woodland by planting trees somewhere else is patently ridiculous. Preserving Britain’s ancient woodlands is important because of their history, their biodiversity, and their cultural values. While the biodiversity may return (in several hundred years time), the historical record and cultural values are gone forever, no matter how many new trees are planted.

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tried to play down Paterson’s comments, describing them as “very hypothetical”.

But in the interview with The Times, Paterson argued that offsetting should be compulsory and used the M6 toll road around Birmingham as an example of how biodiversity offsets could work:

“I think it was 10,000 mature trees [lost] and they planted a million young ones. Now people will say that’s no good for our generation but over the long term that is an enormous increase in the number of trees. That is a practical example of a high amount of planting following a tragic loss of some wonderful trees.”

The M6 toll road was built through the green belt, which is supposed to be protected from development. It damaged two Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Dozens of people’s homes were demolished.

To sign a petition against Paterson’s crazed biodiversity offset plans for ancient woodlands, click here.

This week, the NGO FERN launched a campaign against biodiversity offsets. FERN’s press release is below, and more information is available on the website.

NGO raises concerns about EU and Member State plans to introduce biodiversity offsetting

BRUSSELS, 9 January 2013:
Today, FERN launches a new campaign on biodiversity offsetting with the release of the first of three briefings to assess EU and Member State policy on ‘No Net Loss’ and counter its misguided emphasis on offsetting.[1]
Biodiversity offsetting claims to be a way to maintain biodiversity levels while allowing development that harms biodiversity. In return for speeding through the planning process, developers would promise to create additional habitat for biodiversity – perhaps simply by buying biodiversity credits from a habitat bank. This is what is called an ‘offset’. In a mathematical sense, -1+1= 0, but as FERN shows in their first briefing, biodiversity cannot be turned into a mathematical formula.
Hannah Mowat, carbon and ecosystems trading campaigner at FERN says: “Biodiversity offsetting treats biodiversity as if it were an item you can buy in a supermarket. This leads to misguided policies that do not see the local value of nature to communities, and the need to protect it for their sake.“
She goes on to say “When you destroy a forest for a golf course, the result is not only a loss of rich biodiversity: the lives of people who live near the forest are affected too. Biodiversity is as much about animal and plant species as it is about a place where people live and cherish. Places cannot be offset.”[2]
FERN’s research reveals that a number of countries in the EU, such as the UK, France and Spain are in advanced stages of considering policy on biodiversity offsetting. The EU is also considering offsetting proposals as part of their initiative on ‘No Net Loss’. If the No Net Loss Initiative concentrates on offsetting, this may be a death knell for many of Europe’s landscapes.
“There is a real concern that new legislation on offsetting will undermine existing laws that are currently very clear about allowable damage. If offsetting is used to facilitate previously halted projects, it is nothing more than a license to trash,” says Saskia Ozinga, campaigners coordinator at FERN.
[1] These briefings will be released every Thursday for the next 3 weeks, starting today. ‘What is biodiversity offsetting and why is it problematic’ will be released on 16 January and ‘Biodiversity Offsetting: a track record’ on 23 January.
[2] What is biodiversity and why is it important? Is available in: English; French; Spanish, and German.


Full Disclosure: FERN is one of the organisations that funds REDD-Monitor. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.

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  1. Do governments which pursue such morally unjustifiable policies forfeit their legitimacy as representatives of the people? Perhaps more worrying is the lack of political opposition to what Mr Paterson seeks on behalf of the two parties which are in coalition.

  2. The Ancient Woodlands case is the extreme but has highlighted the wider issues of biodiversity offsetting, which are rarely spoken off. Not least the usurping of the planning system as it stands, the creation of charity landscapes, with little real value but high conservation value – which disenfranchises plan management practitioners. There is also considerable concern about it removing any social tier and fragmenting landscapes completely – as described here, by Prof Peter Howard

  3. @Pip Howard (#2) – Thanks for the link, it’s excellent. Ancient woodland covers such a small area and is so important it should be fully protected. Meanwhile, as Howard points out, the rest of the English landscape is under threat. And biodiversity offsets allow developers to decide which part of the landscape will be protected and for whom.

    Biodiversity offsets are a neo-liberal dream. The Times article states that Paterson, “wanted to create a market in which land would be identified by wildlife groups for improvement and developers would fund the work”. So instead of campaigning to protect the landscape, “wildlife groups” will compete with each other to benefit from biodiversity offsets.

  4. You can bet that certain big conservation organisations are already working out how they can get their big greedy snouts into the offsetting trough…