Biodiversity Offsetting: Challenges at the Coast

Jemma Penelope

Author: Jemma Penelope

In the United Kingdom, biodiversity offsetting is not a new concept and implementation has been happening gradually over the last few years. Via a BBOP Webinar last week Jan Brooke, an environmental consultant from the Maritime Expert Panel Initiative presented his take on the situation drawing from a 2012 paper on the issue from the Institute of Civil Engineering (ICE).

View the Webinar Here


Biodiversity Offsetting at the Coast Lessons from England from Patrick Maguire on Vimeo.

There is clear recognition in the UK that offsetting and compensating for damage done to biodiversity is urgent and necessary. From the 2011 UK National White Paper through to EU directives such as special protection areas, The Birds and Habitat Directives, biodiversity compensation is firmly on the agenda. As such, engineers in the UK already have some experience with compensatory requirements and are in a position to contribute to developing effective policy.

Now, with the EU task of delivering a tool to secure ‘no net loss’ by 2020, it is likely that the UK will soon have many ‘how to’ questions answered for them, but up until now it has primarily been voluntary programmes that the nation has been investigating.

Over the last two years, Brooke reported, the UK has been trying to move towards a more formal biodiversity offset policy. In 2013, a DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) white paper focused on implementation and six pilot projects were rolled out – all of which focused on terrestrial environments.

Also last year, the ICE paper brought together key elements that included a no net loss objective by 2020 and the need to balance the economy and the environment to achieve this. The group saw biodiversity offsetting, and potentially biodiversity banking, as one tool towards these goals as well as the differences between offsetting terrestrially and coastally.

The physical environment is the first hurdle: coastal areas have dynamic processes, and habitats are often highly distinctive that raises like-for-like challenges. Sediments are very important in the system, and scales of time, space and speed can be great compared to terrestrial areas. These kinds of challenges come to light when thinking about perpetuity of offsets.

There are socio-political concerns too when considering coastal land-owners and their perceptions. There is uncertainly over how to legitimately and effectively offset to compensate for loss of resources already protected under EU directives, or national-level sites of special scientific interest. Regulatory and legal overlaps also add complexities, involving maritime, coastal and terrestrial planning authorities.

Sediment and erosion might just be the defining element of coastal offsets and solving the compensation puzzle.

Because habitats rely on the right amount and rate of sediment exchange, coastal enviornments can, and do, change quickly. There is also a more linear relationship between different parts of the landscape and interactions can happen across large distances along the coast.

While sedimentation presents challenges, it also presents opportunities, reports Brooke. Being able to supply, or manage the supply of sediment to an area – over a large or small landscape scale – might just be a legitimate and valuable offset. In areas without the funding to manage sediment control, such as areas where ‘no active management’ government policy exists, significant additionality could occur when management is applied to regulate the supply of sediment in ways that support valuable coastal habitats.

Intertwined with sediment-related concerns is Brooke’s take-home message: Death by a Thousand Cuts is a major issue in coastal environments. Small, un-mitigated damages or residual impacts tend to go uncompensated in the current situation and this can have a major impact over time in areas such as estuaries. The key: forward or preventative mitigation through mitigation banking might offer real advantages in this context.

Currently, there are no formal policies or systems in place for habitat banking, although there are the aforementioned terrestrial pilot programs and some private initiatives. There are still many groups who see the opportunities, but are cautious to establish a reliable and trustworthy system, without ‘rushing into it’.

But if the UK Coastal environment was to support offset banking, what might habitat banks look like?

Brooke emphasises that UK coastal environments are highly distinctive – that is, each habitat is more likely to be quite unlike other coastal habitats, or perhaps not particularly abundant. This is quite in contrast to terrestrial areas, where urban wasteland or under-producing agricultural land is non-distinctive and so ripe for restoration or habitat creation.

Highly distinctive coastal habitats also pose a challenge when trying to trade like-for-like, and Brooke suggests rethinking the wording or framing of what “Like” means. For example, salt marsh could instead be considered a dynamic, sediment rich habitat to be traded for another dynamic, sediment rich habitat, without the need to trade for an exact salt-mash replacement. Having this kind of fungibility or fluidity in a habitat trading has been shown to be important where trading rare and highly specific habitat types has really slowed confidence and trades in other regions.

Creating habitat banking areas and satisfying a like-for-like approach might also involve using currently terrestrial areas and carefully managing them into coastal habitat to create the coastal values needed. Brooke suggests that this approach might be where the real opportunities for UK banking could lie. Rather than restoring or enhancing current habitat as it currently done with many terrestrial ecosystems, coastal environments will likely benefit more from a ‘create-and-transition’ approach. This certainly offers a solution to the high distinctiveness, and death-by-a-thousand-cuts, challenges. And such coastally appropriate approaches might pave the way in dealing with the questions around offsetting in already protected areas, which remains a concern.

When invited to comment, listeners raised other points and suggestions, such as the incorporation of flood plains (such as the Thames), death-by-a-thousand-cuts challenges in the other regions, the potential role of climate change. Listeners were also curious to know just how the UK banking situation was right now.
Ultimately it would seem that UK habitat banking, and its coastal context offers options for more sophisticated, newer approaches to habitat banking and despite the challenges, the UK certainly has the momentum – and from engineering works such as Brooke’s, the expertise – to advance the current conversation and policy developments.

Jemma Penelope is a private consultant to the species and conservation banking industry. She can be reached at [email protected].

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