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Biodiversity offsetting is a licence to trash

A proposal in the UK to destroy ancient woodland to make way for a £40 million motorway service station clearly reveals the flaws of biodiversity offsets.

Smithy Wood is a small area of woodland on the outskirts of Sheffield. The woodland has featured on maps for several hundred years. 800 years ago, the monks of Kirkstead Abbey used timber from Smithy Wood to make charcoal for smelting iron. The stained glass window above is in the chapter house of Sheffield Cathedral and shows monks smelting iron in the 12th Century.

Smithy Wood was split into four by the construction of the M1 motorway in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the wood is a designated Local Wildlife Site within Sheffield’s Green Belt. Woodland historian Melvyn Jones describes the importance of the remaining woodland:

The fragment of the wood that has survived … is irreplaceable not least because of the wood’s association with the first recorded documentary evidence of metal working in the Sheffield area…. A visit to a wood such as this can be as historically significant and as interesting as one to an ancient parish church, manor house or historic sailing ship.

In a recent article in the Guardian, George Monbiot writes,

For local people, Smithy Wood is freighted with stories. Among the trees you can imagine your way into another world. The application to plant a motorway service station in the middle of it, wiping out half the wood and fragmenting the rest, might have been unthinkable a few months ago. No longer.

Biodiversity offsetting makes the unthinkable possible. The developer, Extra Motorway Services, is offering to plant 60,000 trees on 16 hectares to offset the destruction of much of what remains of Smithy Wood.

This, then, is what biodiversity offsetting looks like. Replacing this:

With something like this:

And justifying it with something like this:

Sign the Woodland Trust’s petition to stop the destruction of Smithy Wood.

Meanwhile, a UK company called the Environment Bank is “working to broker biodiversity offsetting agreements for both developers and landowners”. On its website, the Environment Bank makes a point of explaining that it is “impartial” and “independent”. But as Monbiot points out, the Environment Bank’s chairman, David Hill, is also deputy chair of Natural England, the official UK body that is supposed “to conserve and enhance the natural environment”. The Environment Bank stands to profit from the decisions that Natural England makes. Hill’s role in both organisations is a clear conflict of interest, yet on its website The Environment Bank argues that,

Like any business agreement that involves multiple parties and a financial exchange, independent brokers are the best way to remove conflicts of interest.

The Environment Bank has produced an information sheet titled “Biodiversity Offsetting – Busting the Offsetting Myths”. It’s revealing to compare the Environment Bank’s arguments with the reality proposed for Smithy Wood. Here’s one of the so-called “myths”:

“Offsetting is a ‘licence to trash’” – no it isn’t, the fundamental principle behind offsetting is that developers must first avoid impact, then minimise any impact on site, and only then compensate for it off-site. Offsetting is a last resort, not the first option – but it is a very important last resort, because it gives developers more options to make sure that what they do is sustainable.

Let’s work through this. The developers have made no attempt to avoid impact. They could build the service station somewhere else. Instead, they are planning to destroy 8.6 hectares of ancient woodland. This is not minimising any impact on site. The developers are offsetting the destruction by planting trees, not as a last resort, but as justification for the destruction. Nothing about this is “sustainable”.

In its next “myth”, the Environment Bank admits that biodiversity offsetting “actually saves developers money because it speeds everything up, and treats environmental impact in a transparent, measured and non-confrontational way.” That biodiversity offsetting “speeds everything up” explains precisely why developers support biodiversity offsets.

Biodiversity offsetting is unfortunately not limited to the UK. In 2004, Forest Trends set up an organisation called Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP). The secretariat of the organisation is run by Forest Trends and the Wildlife Conservation Society. BBOP describes its Advisory Group as “a collaboration of more than 75 different companies, financial institutions, government agencies, civil society organizations and service providers”. The Environment Bank is one of BBOP’s “service providers” and the UK’s Department for Environment and Rural Affairs is one of BBOP’s government organisations.

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  1. It’s worth looking at gov.UK to get a sense of this governments views on the environment. The link for environment and the countryside, and then wildlife and biodiversity takes you to pages for licensing the killing of protected species, the introduction of non-natives and what to do if you find a dead whale or dolphin. The link marked wildlife and habitat management appears to offer hope, but no it’s a sales pitch for biodivsity off setting.

  2. Very sad that the revolving door of green partners can fool themselves into promoting trees sticks and rubber weed membrane for a precious habitat that that has taken hundreds of years to grow. Sheffield is an industrial artery along the M1 there are many brownfield sites in this area just crying out for gaudy signs and a plastic refreshment watering hole, but using a dead concrete space would be far too sensible, madness knows no offset-bounds!!