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Six steps to mainstreaming Biodiversity Net Gain

biodiversity net gain

Dr Julia Baker (CIEEM, CEnv), Biodiversity Technical Specialist for Balfour Beatty, takes a closer look at how Biodiversity Net Gain can be used effectively to facilitate development, without biodiversity paying the price… 

For years, governments, investors and industry have struggled to balance economic growth with measures to protect nature. Today this challenge is as pressing as ever given the unprecedented investment in infrastructure and the increasing decline in biodiversity across the world. We must adopt a new approach that delivers the infrastructure the country needs and enhances our natural environment.

The principle of delivering a ‘net gain’ for biodiversity can be that new approach. By considering upfront how development projects can boost biodiversity, we can overcome the current ‘development versus nature’ scenario and be in a position where our development supports the Government to deliver its priorities for biodiversity.

Put at its most simple, Biodiversity Net Gain is when development leaves biodiversity in a better state than before.

It is not development that only outweighs losses of biodiversity with gains. It is development that follows the mitigation hierarchy and achieves net gains in biodiversity, through additional conservation activities, that contribute towards strategic priorities for nature.

Biodiversity Net Gain is fast gaining traction within the UK. Major commissioning agencies within the housing, transport and energy sectors have committed to Biodiversity Net Gain. There are also several local authorities adopting Biodiversity Net Gain and, in 2016, CIEEM, CIRIA and IEMA published the UK’s first good practice principles on Biodiversity Net Gain. Perhaps most important is the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan, published in January 2018, which includes these commitments:

“The Government will… embed an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure.

Our immediate ambition is to work in partnership with other Government bodies, local planning authorities and developers to mainstream the use of existing biodiversity net gain approaches within the planning system, update the tools that underpin them and reduce process costs on developers”.

This firmly sets Biodiversity Net Gain on political and commercial agendas and all are major advances. But for Biodiversity Net Gain to be routine, we need to scale up these efforts in six key ways:

1. Establish a robust metric
A robust metric to measure Biodiversity Net Gain is vital. Natural England has committed to updating the ‘biodiversity unit’ metric issued by Defra. While this is welcome, we urge that efforts are made to establish a level playing field in use of the metric and to produce clear guidance on good practice to avoid false claims of Biodiversity Net Gain. For example, metrics alone should never dictate decision-making but must be used in combination with ecological information.

2. Collaborate with local nature conservation experts
So much within industry is based on collaboration. We need to extend this so that we work with local wildlife experts, as measures to enhance biodiversity are far more likely to succeed if local experts are involved in shaping the solutions.

3. Plan at a landscape scale
Large infrastructure schemes cross several local authority boundaries. Regional planning for Biodiversity Net Gain will facilitate its design and implementation for a landscape, where we look beyond an individual project’s boundaries to link together all projects within a locality.

4. Upskill commissioners
Government agencies, local authorities and others commissioning infrastructure schemes often lack the technical capacity to maximise the “win-win” opportunities that Biodiversity Net Gain offers. Addressing this through training and the lessons learnt emerging from industry, can ensure that tenders are designed to realise the multiple benefits that Biodiversity Net Gain can deliver.

5. Use biodiversity offsetting carefully
Government and industry must ensure that, if offsetting is required to deliver Biodiversity Net Gain (after strictly following the Mitigation Hierarchy i.e. only if it cannot be otherwise avoided), it follows good practice, is rigorously monitored, is funded for the long-term and delivers meaningful long-term benefits on the ground.

6. Update EIAs
An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required for certain developments. The process enables planners to take into account the environmental implications of a development before a planning decision is reached. The public have the right to comment and participate in the process. However, EIAs often focus on ‘significant’ impacts meaning that legally compliant development can proceed with biodiversity loss. This must be updated so that EIAs, by default, result in development with no overall loss of biodiversity and, where possible, a net gain.

We need to rethink our approach to deliver the Government’s ambitious infrastructure pipeline and resolve the perceived tension between construction and nature. Biodiversity Net Gain could be the solution, but the good work being undertaken occurs in isolated pockets. We need to scale up our efforts for Biodiversity Net Gain to become routine where, from the outset, developers engage stakeholders to plan how to improve the area around the schemes they are working on. This will require planning and collaboration between industry, Government, academia, landowners and managers and NGOs. But if we work together to mainstream Biodiversity Net Gain, infrastructure construction will generate long-term benefits for nature, people and the economy.

About the Author: Dr Julia Baker (CIEEM, CEnv) is Biodiversity Technical Specialist for Balfour Beatty. Julia designs and develops Biodiversity No Net Loss and Net Gain approaches to development, ranging from corporate policies to management procedures to practical toolkits for construction teams. She also runs professional training courses and supports the preparations of the ‘business case’ for biodiversity.