In this article, we explain Biodiversity Offsets in the context of off-site BNG plans.

The Principles of Biodiversity

Biodiversity’s principles outline a framework that ensures development and human activity can continue without harming the environment. It challenges the years of habitat loss and destruction that have gone without consequence for decades and highlights the deep need for change due to the state of our current environment.

Massive species endangerment, loss of water and global warming are just some examples of the direct impact of loss of biodiversity, meaning it is paramount to preserve and enhance what we have. Policies like Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) foster the creation of this.

A key principle is the Mitigation Hierarchy, which emphasises avoiding the negative impacts of biodiversity first, such as delivering on-site BNG, rather than compensating for unavoidable losses, such as off-site BNG. It is crucial to protect irreplaceable biodiversity that cannot be offset.

What is Biodiversity Offsetting?

A deer in between trees

A biodiversity offset is a process that regulates the environmental impact of projects by ensuring any loss of biodiversity will be compensated somewhere else. In BNG, developers’ required amount of BNG is impacted by the closeness of their biodiversity unit site. The closer it is to the original development site, the less BNG work they have to do.

This is to ensure that an array of habitats remain resilient, and more populated development areas that inhabit certain types of wildlife are wiped out. Ecologists can use the spatial risk multiplier, built into the BNG metric, to calculate this.

These are considered the last step in the mitigation hierarchy, which prioritises minimising and avoiding biodiversity loss before allowing the loss and compensating elsewhere.

How Biodiversity Offsets Work

Biodiversity offsetting counterbalances the environmental impacts of development projects to achieve no net loss, and ideally a net gain, of biodiversity.

This begins by determining whether the offsets are necessary, with help from the statutory metric, biodiversity framework and other documents. This is guided by the principle that certain critical and irreplaceable types of biodiversity cannot be compensated.

This is usually done by an ecologist, involving assessing the biodiversity of a site pre-development and considering potential offset locations. The original site’s existing habitats, species and ecosystems will be taken into account to ensure a thorough ecological offsetting has been delivered. 

Offsets will ensure that the biodiversity conserved matches what has been lost in development, or can ‘trade up’ to prioritise higher conservation outcomes

No Net Loss Biodiversity

No Net Loss (NNL) biodiversity ensures that projects continue without leaving negative biodiversity impacts on the environment. Through biodiversity offsetting, no net loss can be maintained, as the impacts have been made up for elsewhere.

They follow the mitigation hierarchy, which avoids, minimises and restores biodiversity loss before considering external compensation. 

NNL, which aims for a net gain when possible, highlights the failure of economic systems in valuing biodiversity amidst development growth on a mass scale. The mitigation measures ensure all processes can continue, without severe harm to our environmental health and jeopardising the generations ahead of us.

The Mitigation Hierarchy

This framework is instrumental in biodiversity conservation and central to biodiversity offsetting.

This structured approach sees that development projects minimise negative impacts on biodiversity. They aim for no net loss, and if so a net gain. It provides sequential steps for a project to best encourage ecological resilience.

The first step is avoidance, to avoid and prevent impacts before they occur, such as altering infrastructure placement to protect sensitive habitats, or strategically timing activities to avoid disrupting wildlife. This is typically the most cost-effective method, requiring biodiversity considerations at early project stages.

The second is minimization, which encourages strategies to lessen the intensity, duration or extent of the unavoidable impacts. Reducing noise pollution, designing wildlife-friendly infrastructure and wildlife corridors are examples of this. 

Finally, offsetting is administered to compensate for the impacts on the development site. Habitat enhancement, creation and restoration can be administered in a variety of habitat types depending on project requirements. Developers can easily find biodiversity units on our BNG Unit marketplace.

Biodiversity Offsets and Biodiversity Net Gain

Biodiversity offsets are directly in line with biodiversity net gain, as a huge sector of the biodiversity net gain (BNG) policy is off-site BNG delivery. In this case, the BNG cannot be achieved on-site, and the developer must source an appropriate BNG Unit as close to their development site as possible.

While biodiversity offsetting umbrellas a range of conservation activities aimed at combating biodiversity loss, the offsetting within BNG is specifically in referral to the acquisition of off-site biodiversity units to compensate for biodiversity loss through development.

BNG indicates the UK’s approach to market-based environmental solutions; economic growth and development in harmony with biodiversity conservation.

Biodiversity Offsets Vs Carbon Offsets

While biodiversity offsetting and carbon offsetting both compensate for environmental damage, they operate under different mechanisms.

Biodiversity offsetting, as previously explained, compensates for years of biodiversity loss from human activity, and can cover a wide range of conservation practises to achieve ‘no net loss’, and ideally a ‘net gain’. The biodiversity net gain (BNG) policy is a prime example of this, with developers that cannot achieve on-site BNG using marketplaces like ours to source qualified biodiversity units and obtain planning permission.

Carbon offsetting, on the other hand, allows polluters to make up for mass carbon emissions that are heating up the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. An example would be Shell, one of the biggest contributors, and their efforts to make up for this with their carbon offsetting programme. This makes their customers pay 1.5p per litre of their fuel to offset ‘their own emissions’ through their nature-based projects, and they have so far offset over 2 tonnes of CO₂.

A difference between the two is biodiversity is running ahead in becoming mandatory. The officialization of the BNG policy on 12th February is a brilliant step forward that forces companies to take responsibility and brighten our local environments’ chance of survival.

While carbon offsetting is not yet mandatory in the UK, it should be in the near future so that companies and those in the private sector cannot massively fuel climate change with no repercussions.

Biodiversity Offsetting and Habitat Banking

Habitat banking is a fantastic method of biodiversity offsetting. It provides measurable conservation outcomes on a large scale. A habitat bank is a range of habitats, areas and land that is protected and managed by one party. This party ensures that the habitats, species, and biodiversity of the sites are conserved, protected and enhanced.

The size of the habitat bank can vary, but are typically upwards of 20 hectares, making them brilliant biodiversity offsetters. Some habitat banks provide biodiversity credits, in which case developers buy credits directly and achieve a simpler, yet more costly route of BNG (biodiversity net gain). Through delivering biodiversity-enhancing projects, landowners can sell generated credits, which developers can buy to offsite their environmental impacts.

Criticisms of Biodiversity Offsets

Like any new emerging legislation, criticisms naturally arise, and biodiversity offsetting is no exception. It risks commodifying nature, treating ecosystems as assets that can be exchanged, which flattens them into a capitalistic dynamic that overlooks the intrinsic value and complexity of nature.

Concerns arose over the capability of ecologists to stick to the 30-year plan and long-term monitoring, as well as the effectiveness of the offsets. Achieving ‘no net loss’ is thought to be hard to guarantee due to the difficulty in replicating ecosystems. 

That being said, the complexity of the habitat management and monitoring plan (HMMP) ensures that the delivery of BNG offsetting is strictly measured and executed. 

Other fears are that mass offsetting could displace local communities and impact their access to natural resources, prioritising economic growth over social equity.

Losses and gains are better than constant losses.

Overall, despite emerging concerns, biodiversity offsetting is desperately needed to stop the degradation of local ecosystems and sustain the environment, for the sake of us and generations to come.

Further Reading

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