Can biodiversity offsetting reduce environmental loss from urbanization?

Image by lawrence_baulch | flickr.com

Image by lawrence_baulch | flickr.com

Biodiversity offsetting is used by planning authorities and developers to prevent biodiversity loss.  In simple terms, destroying ancient woodlands, wildlife and vital habitats in one location is mitigated by recreating the scene elsewhere. This practice has been used in Canada and the United States for decades; however, it’s currently being introduced to the UK and other parts of Europe as a means to offset environmental loss due to the demanding need of land to overcome housing shortages.  It is also being considered in some Latin American countries and South Africa. However, with the growing population and increasing demand for land for urban development and agriculture, will biodiversity offsetting be able to meet this need without loss to the environment?

The British government says it can, but many non-profits and environmental activists object to biodiversity offsetting, viewing it as a licence, or even justification, to trash national parks, ancient woods, and green spaces in cities.  Though the practice is new to Europe, it has been previously implemented in Canada and the experience has been one of failure.  In Canadian projects that offset fish habitat loss, researchers found that 63% of projects failed to achieve the stated target of no net loss. In another study that looks at restoration projects around the world, research has shown that less than a third of restoration offsets succeeded.  This does not mean, however, that restoration projects are necessarily a waste of time, but rather that ecosystem improvement and repair should not be initiated at the expense of destroying existing biodiversity.

Biodiversity is unique and essential to human and ecosystem health.  Although we are interwoven into the planet’s dynamic web of ecosystems, biodiversity still presents itself with an enigmatic face to humanity. We know very little about it.  Scientists have estimated that there are between 3-30 million species on Earth, with a few studies predicting that there may be over 100 million.  Currently we have identified only 1.7 million species.  In addition, biodiversity at different locations differs from season to season.  For example, tropical forests have higher biodiversity than the boreal forests of Canada. Capturing an accurate picture of the state of biodiversity can take years.  It can take hundreds or thousands of years to replace these levels of biodiversity in compromised ecosystems.  Many existing ancient forests took millions of years to become ecologically rich. What will the birds, bugs, and plants do in the meantime? What would local communities do if their natural green space were destroyed?

Biodiversity offsetting could create an even bigger problem for ecosystem preservation.  Given the growing climate and biodiversity crisis, we should be working around nature – not the other way round. This is not a call for the ceasing of all development; there are housing and food crises all around the world. However, alleviating these issues need not require the bulldozing ancient woods.  We are all a part of this complex ecological puzzle, and depend on the natural environment around us for our well-being. 

“Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” – Chief Seattle