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Biodiversity offsetting – a licence to trash nature

A cynic, wrote Oscar Wilde, is a man “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Climate change denier Owen Paterson, the ConDem anti-environment secretary, fits this description down to his toes. 

He is championing “biodiversity offsetting”, which puts a market price on habitat so that developers can destroy protected wildlife and woodland areas, if they create a new habitat elsewhere.

Patterson, who earlier this week said that global warming might be a good thing, claims: "Offsetting is an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy. There is no reason why wildlife and development can't flourish side-by-side."
Driving the government’s plans is the Environment Bank which is described as the “leading trader in the UK in environmental assets”. It brokers deals between buyers (developers, corporate, investors) and sellers (landowners, farmers, conservation bodies, land management companies), according to an EU project on the concepts of “natural capital”.
Like all offsetting projects, this is a market-driven concept that creates a profit for the “broker”. As the bizarrely-named Operationalisation of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services project acknowledges, “biodiversity offsets have recently been identified in the UK… as one of the top business opportunities related to valuing and/or protecting nature”.  
Value and sell nature. You couldn’t make it up. But that’s capitalism for you. The replacement habitat doesn’t even have to be in the same area as that which has been lost – presumably it can be on any old bit of waste land. You can be sure it'll be land the developer is happy to be rid of.

Patterson’s department seems to believe (or pretends to believe) there is some equivalence between a developed habitat and a piece of disused land. It's like saying that destroying a 1000-year old hedgerow can be offset by planting a privet hedge!

There is no recognition of the complexity of eco-systems, where species exist in a naturally occurring web of interdependence that you can't just reinvent.

a licence to trash nature

As Sandra Bell, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "Nature is unique and complex – not something that can be bulldozed in one place and recreated in another at the whim of a developer." Others have called the plan a “licence to trash nature”.

Environment Bank CEO Tom Tew claims that “when you put a value on biodiversity you are putting a financial incentive for developers not to trash it". But how does that work exactly? There is no explanation of how these benefits will accrue. And this is the whole problem with this now fashionable approach, where all of nature is classified as "environmental services" or "green capital".

"Green capitalism" was the mantra at the Rio+20 summit earlier this year, and of course governments are going to snatch at this idea. It suggests you can protect the environment whilst encouraging growth, without challenging or regulating the activities of the corporations.

But suppose they succeed in fully incorporating every molecule, every leaf and drop of clear water, into the global capitalist system – then what? Why, they do what capitalism always does, of course – work out a way to make that capital work in order to generate profits. That's what's happening already as corporations buy up wholesale patents on natural products.

The reality is that the concept of building "whole earth costs" into planning for development and production can only contribute to the protection of eco-systems if it is part of a not-for-profit economic system. Instead of trying to force nature to operate according to the laws of capital, we need to regenerate and refound our human society to operate in line with the laws of nature.

As the Cochabamba declaration on Mother Earth rights states:

The creation of new market mechanisms for nature, the development of a market for environmental services, will bring us toward a collapse. We believe it is wrong to break down nature into simple environmental services subject to economic valorization and market exchange. The laws of the market, of supply and demand, are in conflict with the laws and natural cycles of the Planet Earth.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
3 October 2013

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