Biodiversity Offsetting

Russell Brand meets biodiversity offsettingJeremy Paxman interviewing Russell Brand was one of the most surreal things I’ve seen on TV. It was Monty Python meets the Young Ones. It’s interesting how someone bright and engaging (Russell) can look so idiotic when they’re out of their area of expertise (i.e.getting stoned/naked/shagged and insulting people)*. It’s particularly true in politics, and particularly true of ministers in technically difficult areas. I try to stay clear of the P word in my blog, but I am increasingly suffering from a Russell Brand sensation when I read about Owen Paterson.

Owen has a broad and demanding portfolio as Minister for the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. One day it’s neonicotinoids, then the badger cull, and then it’s GM. I don’t find myself agreeing with a lot of what he says, which is ok, but I just don’t understand a lot of what he says, which isn’t. Zac Goldsmith, who’s considerably better informed than me and has no political axe to grind, seems to have the same problem. A minister with a touch of the Russells is a particular worry at the moment, not least in the area of biodiversity offsetting. I’ve blogged about this before, as it seems to me to be a BIG issue for conservation at the moment, if not THE big issue.

I like the concept of biodiversity offsetting. The idea behind it is that planning restrictions and regulation have, to date, failed to protect biodiversity, let alone promote it. Other solutions should be found to accomodate commercial and social pressure for development. Biodiversity offsetting is a possible answer. It works a bit like the carbon credit system. If you are a developer and you destroy stuff when you build your housing estate you have to replace it to a similar or higher ascribed biodiversity value elsewhere. Simple theory, difficult practice, of course.

Given that caveat I was rather taken by the idea. The current system doesn’t seem to be helping biodiversity and we need to look at new solutions. Getting people to think about a value for nature is, of course, bonkers, but it does at least get them to think about what it gives them – what the trade calls “biodiversity services”. It also means that development might be less destructive, or even – conceivably – adds to biodiversity.

Unfortunately, of course, the devil is in the detail. As a good piece in this month’s British Wildlife points out, biodiversity offsetting absolutely isn’t about declaring open season on nationally important wildlife sites like the one at Lodge Hill in Medway. Nor does it mean we don’t demand that new development should be sustainable.

It can work brilliantly, however, as described in an article by Geoffrey Lean in today’s Telegraph. As he says, however, it needs mutual trust between government, the developers and conservationists. It needs an impartial minister who doesn’t alienate people and sides with the scientifically sensible. Not Russell Brand.

*I’m not sure Paxo came out of it much better, incidentally. And I’m sure Russell has far, far more fun.