I had a good morning with Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, yesterday. While the weather was a little disappointing, Old Hall Marshes was looking great, hooching with waders and marsh harriers. We discussed some of the challenges we face on the site and set it into the wider Essex/national context. The reserve provided a much better backdrop for our discussion compared to the usual office environment.
Mr Benyon's attention, like all his parliamentary colleagues, will turn today to the Queen's Speech: a moment for pageant and political intent. I'll offer a view on its content tomorrow.
In the meantime, I promised to pick up the offsetting theme continued by Sam Vine yesterday. Sam outlined some of the challenges they are dealing with as biodiversity offsets are rolled out at state and national level (link here). Much of what Sam said resonates with the RSPB’s thoughts, particularly the need to adopt a principled, robust and pragmatic approach to the development of any offset system to ensure that nature does not lose out.
Our interest in offsets is not to facilitate economic growth per se, but to see if they offer a way to stem decades of gradual biodiversity loss to development that has gone on outside our protected areas, with little or no redress. Our starting point is that compensation (or offsetting) is an absolute last resort, once all measures to avoid and reduce possible impacts have been taken, and there is a clear need for the development that justifies damage to our steadily eroding natural capital. We are not alone in wanting to avoid short cuts being taken – the Government’s own National Planning Policy Framework agrees, as does its Natural Capital Committee.
A well regulated, mandatory national system of offsets could offer one possible way of making those fine words a reality. This could ensure, as the NCC’s report suggests, that development no longer leads to the erosion of our natural capital. Designed properly, it could offer more effective ways to provide habitat and species compensation when it is considered necessary, while complementing wider landscape scale conservation and lowering overall costs through economies of scale. However, we do agree with the NCC this should not be rushed in to headlong – that it should be ‘carefully explored after a clear set of principles and a policy framework has been developed.’ Scratch the surface of the biodiversity offset issue and you reveal a complex web of interrelated issues that all need to be got right if the goal of no net loss of biodiversity is to be achieved for real, rather than on paper. Careful thought and real political will, based on robust science, is needed to implement an offset system worthy of the lofty ambitions often claimed for it.
Comparing the situations here and in Australia reveals some interesting similarities and some real differences. The first is that a successful offsets scheme relies upon there being the political and social will to meet no net loss of biodiversity. This means having strict rules about what has to be offset, when, and how it is done. At the same time, accepting that it will often not be possible to replace a lost habitat or species, so damaging development in the wrong place should not proceed.
But there are real differences that, in some ways, makes developing and implementing offsets in here more complex. For example, unlike Australia, we do not have significant areas of native vegetation where little intervention and cost would be required beyond getting the habitat to a point where it can be left alone. Our rich heritage of semi-natural habitats means knowledge of how to restore or create the conditions required by many habitats and species is still in its infancy and largely experimental. As in Australia, sound science is essential. Simply increasing the area of replacement habitat by five or ten fold and hoping it will work cannot make up for the permanent loss of valued biodiversity. Even where we do know how to guarantee success, there is normally a need for continuing active intervention which brings with it associated costs over the course of decades.
So, we wait to see how the Coalition Government wishes to take forward its current work on biodiversity offsets in England. The RSPB will continue to give serious thought to this issue that at one and the same time offers real opportunity for, and considerable risk to, the conservation of the natural world around us.
I trust you had a fine Bank Holiday weekend. Mine included a couple of excellent dawn(ish) choruses and feels as though it has extended a bit as this morning I shall be hosting Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, at one of our reserves, Old Hall Marshes in Essex. I am looking forward to it. Lots of sunshine and lots of wildlife will help us both. Which is good as there is a lot to discuss!
Here is one issue.
Back in January, I set out some of our views about this issue after the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, revealed to The Times his interest in establishing a scheme that offers planners the powers to ‘offset’ the impacts of development, thus removing apparent barriers to economic growth. Since then, the pressures to remove environmental barriers to economic growth have only increased (see here and here). It’s also apparent that interest in offsets is unabated. Over the last few months, the Government’s Ecosystems Markets Task Force and its Natural Capital Committee have both recommended serious consideration be given to the idea. The Environment Secretary’s enthusiasm to learn more has recently taken him half way round the world to find out about Australia’s approach to offsets.
So, I thought it was time to return to the subject again. Given the Environment Secretary’s recent trip to Australia, I’m really pleased to welcome Sam Vine, Head of Conservation at BirdLife Australia, to reflect on their experience of the offsets debate with their national and state governments. Tomorrow, I’ll set out some more of our views.
Globally, biodiversity is in crisis. Bird species are in decline all around the world. The task of arresting, and ultimately reversing, this decline is urgent.
At the same time, governments are increasingly promoting biodiversity ‘offsets’ as a way to enable both conservation and development. They claim that offsets can achieve ‘no net loss’, or even ‘net gain’, in biodiversity or species habitat. Sounds good in theory, but does it work? And are our policy makers and developers really up to the challenge?
The idea that we can create new habitat to replace what will be lost as part of a development is an appealing one. We know it is at least possible to create some habitat for some species some of the time. Many recovery programs for threatened species focus on restoring lost habitat. However, in most circumstances the process of delivering full and valid ‘offsets’ for species habitat are often untested, require long lag times for habitat to ‘come online’, and are too costly to recreate habitat at an appropriate scale.
So even where it is theoretically feasible, history demonstrates that offset programs rarely benefit nature. In fact, there are many documented cases where offsetting has been used to justify the destruction of irreplaceable natural habitat. Qualitative assessments of biodiversity-offset programs demonstrate that they rarely meet the objectives they were established to achieve.
To effectively counter-balance a development impact, a biodiversity offset must deliver the same amount of the same biodiversity or habitat values as are to be lost. But the entire range of natural values and processes on any given piece of earth are complex and are not fully understood. When devising offset schemes, the natural processes need to be understood not just in the “here and now” but well into the future. The complexity and uncertainty involved make it very difficult to plan and to verify offsets in a way that ensures a true ecological counter-balance.
Nonetheless, a vogue for market-based approaches to biodiversity conservation is driving the development of offset schemes around the world. Here in Australia, our Commonwealth and state governments are increasingly trying to implement their policy goals of reversing biodiversity decline by ‘offsetting’ damage to threatened species habitat.
This approach sends the wrong message that our most threatened species and special places are tradable commodities. Furthermore, offset programs will inevitably lead to the loss of genetic diversity. Genetic diversity provides threatened species critical adaptation possibilities and resilience to the impacts of climate change. These issues have been largely ignored by governments in the ardent hope that they can have their cake and eat it too.
Our governments are taking up offsets schemes with gusto. BirdLife Australia have responded pragmatically. We have engaged with policy makers with the objective of improving policy and processes. We have developed a list of criteria for an offset proposal to be considered a valid offset. These criteria are based on the best available science and expertise within the Australian context. They are technically prescriptive and complex, but we make no apologies for this. If governments are serious about achieving their stated objective of conserving biodiversity, offset programs must meet these robust criteria and ensure ‘no net loss’. Anything less will amount to the facilitation of habitat destruction at the expense of environmental protection.
Image captions and credits:
Top: Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo – habitat offsets are required for this endangered species’, yet monitoring indicates it has declined by 40% since 2010, probably due to continued habitat loss and degradation. [Image: Robyn Pickering]
Bottom: Plains Wanderer – offsets are problematic for this vulnerable species as it relies on specialised grassland habitat that cannot be replicated [Image: Chris Tzaros]
I woke again to blue skies. It's something I could get used to. Shame that so much of my life is spent indoors looking out.
But I have a confession to make. All this sunshine has slowed me down a bit. At home, at the Lodge and even in London where I was yesterday, spring is a wonderful distraction. Seeing wood anemone, bluebells, lesser celandines while the migrants provide the soundtrack to spring is an absolute joy. In the last ten days or so, the migrants have returned to the Lodge with whitethroat, chiffchaff, willow warbler and blackcap all now singing. Tree pipit, firecrest and ring ouzel have also been recent reported highlights (which I have sadly missed). But from where I sit, the green woodpecker on the lawn looks looks resplendent and I can boast about the two red kites which flew past my office window in the past month - something I can take for granted today but would have been an astonishing site for a Conservation Director of the RSPB just a few years ago.
This weekend, I am off to north Norfolk with the family, so I shall have no reason to feel guilty and, amazingly for a Bank Holiday weekend, it seems that the sun will shine.
So, as the local political map of the UK changes today, my mind may drift to the weekend.
But before I go, here are two bits of unfinished business:
First, have a listen to my colleague Tony Whitehead on the Today programme (at about 6.40 today) talking about the death toll from the south west England marine pollution incident. We've stepped up our call for the discharge of the sticking substance PIB into the sea to be banned. You can help by signing this petition.
Second, remember the Battle of Hastings around the proposed relief road? Well, recently released papers from the Department for Transport has shown that the rationale for deciding to go ahead with the scheme may not have been entirely in DfT's gift to give. The great clunking fist of economic growth seems to have won through again.
I hope the sunshine slows you down this weekend.
In the end, the European Commission won the day and new restrictions will soon be placed on the use of the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
Much of the comment in our press has focused on the fact that the UK, with seven other Member States, voted against a ban. In fact, despite the recent campaigning effort from a number of NGOs, the UK hardened its position as in March they had abstained.
Here are the details of yesterday's agreement:
Behind the headlines, two interesting debates that have at times been colliding. One has been on the strength of the evidential link between neonics and bee declines. Avid followers of this blog will note that we took our time to support calls for a ban on flowering crops - we had been worried about the environmental consequences of farmers switching to more harmful chemicals. In the end though, the conclusion we reached, having weighed up all the evidence available to us, was that the risk from neonics to pollinators probably outweighs the risks from the alternatives.
The second debate focused on how much environmental harm we are prepared to inflict if we are to grow enough food to feed the world. Some highlighted the potential loss in yield if neonic use was banned. Putting aside the spurious debates about the the UK's capability to feed the world (for a reminder of our views on the subject see here), I think that concern has been growing amongst the farming community that neonicotinoids were really bad news. The last thing that farmers want is for their own pesticide regime to lead to a loss of pollinators. The value of bees to the economy is estimated at about £500m yet replacing those free services would cost nearly four times that amount - £1.8bn - but that assumes that this level of pollination by hand is feasible. To be honest, like many debates about the utilitarian value of wildlife, priceless might be a better description (as captured by the banner at last Friday's march of the beekeepers).
So what should happen next?
First, we need the ban to be in place as quickly as possible.
Second, we should use the two year period to improve our understanding of neonicotinoid use so that the 2015 review is informed by the best science. Equally, we also need to monitor the impacts of the ban - including the use of alternative pesticides - on populations of pollinating insects.
Third, we need to use this opportunity to develop and promote safer alternatives to neonicotinoids – including non-chemical techniques. We've long argued that pest control in the EU should follow the principles of integrated pest management.
Finally, we hope that our government will now strive to get the best result for UK farmers: helping them manage pests successfully and safely as part of wildlife-friendly systems of farming, without the need for neonics.
So a good day for wildlife and a good day for anyone who wants the value of nature to be recognised in decision-making.
Last week, the UK Government announced plans to cut the ‘soaring’ number of Judicial Review applications being made in England and Wales’. These include proposals to halve the time limit for applying for a review of a planning decision.
We joined forces with WWF-UK, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to express our concerns. Why?
First, because this is another example of the triumph of anecdote over evidence. The 2012 consultation bemoaned JRs as “stifling innovation and frustrating much needed reforms, including those aimed at stimulating growth and promoting economic recovery” yet the proportion of JRs for cases other than asylum or immigration (such as planning) is tiny has not changed since 2005.
Second, we are concerned because JR is a key tool for civil society to challenge the State when it gets things wrong. This is particularly important at a time of increased development pressure and when there is a political desire to get the economy moving.
The RSPB comments on hundreds of planning applications a year. We speak up for nature when special places of important populations are threatened by inappropriate development and when necessary make our views heard at public inquiries. We win some (such as Dibden Bay or 2011 battles to save heathland wildlife at Crowthorne, Talbot Heath and Hurstleigh) and we lose some (such as the recent decision to expand Lydd airport in Kent). But if we feel that the law has not been respected then we will take steps to challenge the decision.
We did this, most famously, over Lappel Bank. Here, Medway Ports Authority were granted permission for the reclamation of Lappel Bank for a car and cargo park. In 1993, the Secretary of State for the Environment designated the Medway Estuary and Marshes as a SPA, but decided to exclude Lappel Bank on the grounds that the economic need for port expansion outweighed the site’s nature conservation value. The RSPB took the bold decision to challenge this on the grounds that the Birds Directive did not allow economic considerations to be taken into account in the designation of an SPA. The RSPB brought a judicial review against the Secretary of State, which was eventually referred by the House of Lords to the European Court of Justice. The European Court ruled in our favour and although the development had already gone ahead and the site was lost, this case established the principle of compensatory habitat for damage to an internationally important site. This led to new habitat being created on Wallasea Island, now the site of a much greater habitat recreation scheme of which we are rather proud.
The process of judicial review is a part of good governance enabling civil society to challenge when they believe the law has not been upheld. Government's new proposals will make it harder for citizens and NGOs to have their voices heard. My fear is that will lead to bad decision-making and projects which cause needless harm to the natural environment.
And that is not a great legacy for any government to leave.