Our main wildlife conservation organisations seem to have swallowed the idea of biodiversity offsetting and are all at pains to point out that it might work (RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust (which isn’t really a main wildlife conservation organisation (but let’s just pretend it is)).
It is perhaps a mean thought to imagine that these three organisations might be thinking that they might get their hands on some offsetting benefits ( a re-run of the way some wildlife conservation organisations appeared to look at the forestry sell-off issue?) so we won’t think that at all.
I think, there are two reasons, both very good reasons, to oppose biodiversity offsetting.
Reason 1: we can’t trust this government.
That’s quite a bald statement but that’s what I mean.
If you were considering entrusting your children to a nursery which had a record of mistreatment of children, sometimes leading to death, and where the senior managers were on the record as saying that they didn’t like kids anyway, then you might pause before handing over your little loved ones.
This is the government which has done nature no favours whatsoever and whose PM apparently talks about ‘green cr*p’, whose Chancellor attacks the environment for getting in the way of economic growth, and whose Secretary of State for the Environment wants rid of thousands of badgers. I don’t trust them on environmental issues and I don’t trust their motives on this issue. Why would you? One shouldn’t think the worst of people, I know, but if they keep behaving badly then it is simply crazy to think the best of them.
And Owen Paterson actually talks to The Times about offsetting ancient woodland – an example which shows that the very man who is responsible for taking this tricky policy forward can’t even come up with a plausible example to illustrate how it might work?
If a Labour government suggested offsetting then I wouldn’t like it, but I might be prepared to cut them some slack as far as their motives were concerned (only a little slack, but I am not entirely unreasonable), but this lot? You must be having a laugh! Would you trust your beloved biodiversity to a bunch of biodiversity-haters?
Reason 2: it’s not likely to work anyway!
There is a big trap into which people interested in policy often fall when considering potential new policies. They hope for the best. By which, I mean that they think of how a complicated policy might work and then assume that it will work like that. It’s been done with biofuels, agri-environment schemes and elsewhere.
It’s like standing in front of a fruit machine (which I never have) and thinking ‘because I might get six cherries in a row – I will get six cherries in a row and I’ll be rich! Yippee!’. No you won’t – because it’s very, very unlikely.
You need to measure the biodiversity value, turn it into the right amount of money, spend the money in the right way and in the right place, and for everything to work. If all those (and other things) happen then offsetting could work. But it’s so difficult (and it’s in the hands of biodiversity haters anyway) that it won’t work.
The RSPB seems to be bending over backwards to find a way of being nice about offsetting and the analogy with the Habitats Directive is a poor one. The Habitats Directive is designed as a policy measure to protect existing natural riches – and it does. Only under the most pressing of needs can it be overridden and then compensatory habitat must be produced. Off-setting is an idea to make it easier for a developer to get his (let’s assume it’s a nasty man) way and then fork out a bit of money for some good possibly to be done somewhere else if everything works. The two things aren’t very similar really are they? One is an effective measure to protect, the other is a measure to weaken protection with the promise of jam tomorrow.
The proposal for biodiversity offsetting is driven by two things – a belief that economic development is of paramount importance and nothing should stand in its way, and a belief that markets can deliver. I don’t share either view. But our wildlife NGOS are adding credibility to offsetting by saying that it could work. Pigs might fly.