Trading Places – biodiversity offsetting.


in Biodiversity Offsetting, Sustainable Development/Green Economy

by Pip Howard


The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) ‘Making Nature’s Values Visible‘ is a brilliant concept that has been twisted so far by some governments that it risks becoming a major new threat to the environment and the UK coalition Government are at the head of the charge in doing so.

The basic concept that environmentalists should have financial values at their disposal in order to illustrate and engage with economists has been turned over by the UK Government who decided to use an economist to front the development of their home ‘natural capital‘ project: Biodiversity Offsetting (BO).

Carbon trading is without surprise largely dead. Carbon offsetting limps on, but isn’t working, with huge displacements of people from their landscapes at gunpoint. Corruption was inevitable. ‘But corruption couldn’t happen in the UK, could it?’.  Yes it could, indeed BO is at a stage where it could easily be designed to be inherently and legally corrupt.

The coalition (Nick Clegg’s speech at Rio +20) and others including ‘Environmental Consultancies’ (have you noticed how these companies now often have large shiny offices with huge car parks?) and NGOs (more on them later) are keen to progress with BO.  A Defra commissioned scoping study highlights the many complexities of BO in comparison with few for Carbon trading. This scoping study, as with other BO bumf from Defra, uses case study from North America, Brazil, South Africa and Australia – as with the public forest disposal consultation using such case study is useless. The landscapes and biodiversity within them are simply too different from the situations that BO is destined for in England. A fundamental difference is that all these countries have large tracts of real wilderness. The whole basis for BO in the UK is based solely on the economic case study of these countries.

What is appalling and here there is a parallel to the Forest Sell Off, is that the NGOs appear strangely mute, or are busy writing blogs with a ‘proceed with caution’ air about BO. There is no possible way of BO working, so why pretend there may be? (Whilst BO cannot work it will cause considerable damage and use considerable sums of money before it fails). Walk up to any NGO staff with a spoonful of soil from your back garden and ask them to name every species in it and its value, they would be unable to. Science, thankfully, is not dead but anyone advocating BO must believe that we now know everything and thus believe science has finished.  The brokering of nature as these NGOs are ‘interested in’ doing is despicable.

Development is needed and cannot be halted. The solution to good development has to be local. With proper public engagement solutions can be found and developers could be adding hugely to any community by way of environmental and social schemes where they have developed. Indeed with good design biodiversity could be increased on the development site itself.  BO prevents all of this, it is selling your landscape, your place and you can’t say or do anything about it.

As with the Forest Sell Off it is quite clear that only grassroots can or will fight this. And as with the Forest Sell Off many esteemed academics, scientists and other professionals will be on our side.

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Hannah Mowat April 24, 2013 at 07:21

Dear Pip,

Hannah from FERN (, campaigner on ecosystems trading – please get in touch, I think we have things to talk about! Not all NGOs are going along with BO – some like us are going to do everything we can to stop it even as a concept, but to do so, we need help from the grassroots. We’re working at the EU level where this stuff is moving very fast; in the process of doing a scoping paper about this.

Get in touch!


Sandra Bell May 23, 2013 at 14:48

Friends of the Earth is also raising concerns about biodiversity offsetting:

Roderick Leslie April 25, 2013 at 10:46

I think the problem is lack of imagination – or maybe even worse, refusing to recognise what is staring you in the face. In ‘A Garden for Everyone’ I speculated on the extension of green development already in place in places like the Thames Gateway and the north west – a new, positive approach to green space as a crucial component of creating attractive places for people to live rather than just housing estates. This is very different to the worst versions of Biodiversity Offsetting where probably rather substandard habitat is created somewhere well away from where it will disrupt intensive development.

How do you do it ? Its both complicated and simple – that there is a free market in development land is complete rubbish – Government/the planning system rations development land which means that were Government to say that for every hectare developed 5 or 10 hectares of green space should be created it could (and probably would) happen.

Building enough houses for everyone and creating attractive places to live are going to be absolutely crucial to this country’s economic success over the next 20 years: if we want to maintain first world incomes Britain has to be an attractive place to do business, with physical safety, reliability of Government and banking important, but also an attractive environment. It scares me that our current Government seems intent on downgrading our national living environment in a completely misguided view of what constitutes economic development, at the same time protecting the ridiculous notional values tied up in the housing stock owned by the older generation, and risking undermining the future for younger people.

Pip Howard April 25, 2013 at 18:25

Roderick the kind of locally based initiative you describe is fantastic and I am not anti development at all, particularly if it can bring in funding towards a local project. Biodiversity offsetting stinks of simply being a method to disengage people and halt any bottom up methodology – the very title is a classic (and bad) PR born dumping down title. Is this really all about maintaining Quango & NGO office jobs? Practitioners are left out in the cold, yet again. This austerity obsessed govt cannot surely be that blind to the huge waste of money this is going to be, or is it, as I think it may be, simply a convenient way to ensure the gap between conservationists and developers at least appears to be closed or closing?

Roderick Leslie April 28, 2013 at 17:11

Pip, I couldn’t agree with you more. It worries me intensely when people talk about the uplands as the ‘green lungs of the nation’ – tacitly supporting a view of where most of us lives that divides the landscape between intensive farming and development.

As you realise, I’m proposing an alternative – and I think that is where we have a huge problem: all the worthy campaigns like the NT’s over development do definitely hold back the tide, and I support them. But they do no more than that: we must propose real-life alternatives, which is exactly what is happening in woodlands in England where wood energy has the potential to benefit the green economy, jobs and business and declining woodland biodiversity all at the same time. It is a real alternative that doesn’t trip up on any of the key issues, especially money. The big question now is whether Government is capable of absorbing and acting on this type of win-win ambition, or will it slump back on a pointless adminstrative action like amalgamating Forest Services and Natural England ?

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