A Balance of Life: Biodiversity Offsets

Posted on October 31, 2013
Posted By: Scott Shugarts

Cap-and-trade has been a much-discussed option to curtail pollution, both in the US and around the globe.  It creates a market where companies are limited in how much pollution they may emit, but are  able to “trade” the right to pollute (usually via carbon emission credits) to other companies in return for money or other benefits.  The scheme has been proposed by both Democratic President Obama (most recently during his 2013 State of the Union address) as well as Republican Senator John McCain (as part of his 2008 Presidential campaign platform), and has been put into practice in some areas of the country.

A similar concept is being discussed in the construction and development industries.  Various levels of government - from a local village up to the World Heritage Fund – have frequently reserved or at least heavily restricted land from being developed.  But now there are plans to develop some of those previously off-limits areas.

In Britain, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has floated a proposal to allow developers the opportunity to buy credits to build on formerly restricted areas in return for payments to either create new restricted areas or improve existing ones.  The proposed system is referred to as Biodiversity Offsetting.

Similar programs, called Mitigation Banks, have been used in the US since 1991.  As of 2005, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there were close to 175,000 acres of land available through Mitigation Banks in the US(by comparison, the 5 boroughs of New York City consist of about 190,000 acres). 

Biodiversity Offsetting certainly has prominent supporters.  The Society of Wetland Scientists, a 3,500 member strong group of international scientists dedicated to wetland study, is one of the most ardent supporters.  Wetland Mitigation Banking, a position paper published by the society, unequivocally states, “The Society of Wetland Scientists supports wetland mitigation banking to improve mitigation success and contribute to the goal of no net loss of wetlands.”

Likewise, Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for DEFRA, writes, “Offsetting . . . guarantees there is no net loss from development and supports our ambition to achieve net gain for nature. For developers it can offer a simpler, faster way through the planning system. It can be quicker and more straightforward to agree a development’s impacts and can create a ready market to supply compensation for residual damage to nature.”

Not all parties are buying into the virtues of Biodiversity Offsetting.  Hannah Mowat of FERN, an organization that monitors EU involvement in forests, notes that, while the UK has had 6 pilot offset programs operating for a year, “No offsets were completed until August 2013 when a meadow was created.”  Mowat goes on to point out, “the meadow is only guaranteed for 15 years . . . with no guarantees, this is no more than a promise in the wind.”

Still some environmental groups are looking for a silver lining. "If we get it right it could benefit the economy and benefit wildlife," said Nik Shelton from RSPB.  "But the early proposals that we saw weren't going to achieve that. It sounds like they've listened.”

Indeed, whether Biodiversity Offsetting, or any pseudo cap-and-trade scheme, can ever work will depend greatly on the oversight authority.  So the big question is: do you trust your government to oversee environmental protection balances?

Authored By:
Scott Shugarts earned his B.A. in History from SUNY at Buffalo in 2001. He was worked in education, finance, and joined Energy Curtailment Specialists in 2012 as an Administrative Sales Assistant and Research Specialist. Scott has a long history of interest in public policy and has contributed to local blogs for years. In his personal time Scott enjoys travelling throughout North America, as well as chasing around his 3 sons.

Other Posts by: Scott Shugarts

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November, 06 2013

Fred Linn says

The biological world does not isolate and categorize. All live exists as an interdependent web. All organisms are evolved to specific factors in their environment. That includes everything from the largest whales to the smallest bacterium.

The environment is not subject to debate or compromise. It is not something that you can arbitrarily dissect into pieces and destroy piecemeal and expect the whole to survive and function.

You can't allow pollution here, and expect it not to turn up there. That is not the way things work.

Cap and trade is the most stupid idea EVER.

No matter where the pollution comes from---or how much some industry paid to pollute----it still kills.

And ultimately it kills us---WE live in and depend on the environment too.

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