The role of coastal engineers in delivering no net loss through Biodiversity Offsetting

The continuing loss of biodiversity as a result of human use and development remains a major concern, both globally and in the UK. Defra's 2011 Natural Environment White Paper set an overall objective of no net loss of biodiversity by 2020.

Coastal habitat at Minsmere RSPB nature reserve, Suffolk
Coastal habitat at Minsmere RSPB nature reserve, Suffolk

Offsetting, as set out in the guiding principles developed by Defra, provides a mechanism that allows the biodiversity loss or gain from a development to be quantified using agreed metrics.

Offsets are not intended to be used to compensate for the loss of species and habitats which are protected under international or national legislation, nor are they intended merely to protect the extent and condition of what is already there. Rather, an objective of offsetting is to help stem the net loss of biodiversity associated with developments outside protected areas. At present, biodiversity offsetting is a voluntary initiative in England.

This paper explores the wider context within which an offsetting policy might be applied in coastal and estuarine areas, and promotes a different way of thinking. Offsetting is easily applied to areas of low ecological value land, providing an opportunity for large scale habitat restoration in the wider environment.

However, it not only provides the opportunity (and mechanism) to support sustainable development, it also encourages 'working with nature' - creating the structure within which developers, landowners, planners and other regulators can work together to enhance, restore and create habitats within the context of a functional ecosystem.

A key question posed within this paper is: what is the potential for offsetting at the coast? A large proportion of coastal habitat is already protected through designations – but within the larger picture of creating a more functional bio-diverse environment, even small changes can be important.

Just as the concern of "death by a thousand cuts" is very relevant to the coastal and estuarine environment, so too is the concept of structured enhancement. Small changes and minor conservation activities at local level can support broader scale biodiversity gain and hence contribute the necessary matrix within which designated sites can thrive. Importantly, offsetting may also be attractive to landowners as it may offer more of an incentive than other initiatives to invest in environmentally beneficial land management.

There are potentially many opportunities for biodiversity offsetting at the coast, but there are also a number of challenges including those associated with the nature of the physical environment. Coastal engineers are likely to have a pivotal role in ensuring the effective delivery of this important policy: they must therefore understand both what it means and what is needed.

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