Biodiversity Offsetting in Action: Bulldoze the UK’s Ancient Woodlands? No Problem, Just Plant Some Trees

by Chris Lang / Climate Connections

UK Environment Secretary Owen Patterson. Photo: Express

UK Environment Secretary Owen Patterson. Photo: Express

The Right Honourable Owen Paterson MP is the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Commenting on his appointment in 2012, George Monbiot described it as “a declaration of war on the environment”.

Even judged by the standards of the UK’s Conservative Party, Paterson’s politcs are grim. He’s opposed to wind farms but in favour of fracking. He’s in favour of culling badgers and in favour of fox hunting. He’s in favour of GM food. He’s opposed to gay marriage.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) faces cuts, leaving it ill equipped to deal with the recent floods in the south of England. A Defra report points out that rising flood risk is likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the UK. But Paterson doesn’t see climate change as much of a threat. In response to the latest IPCC report he said,

“People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.

“I think the relief of this latest report is that it shows a really quite modest increase, half of which has already happened. They are talking one to two and a half degrees.”

Last week, Paterson demonstrated his environmental ignorance by announcing that developers will be allowed to destroy Britain’s ancient woodlands. All they have to do is plant 100 trees for each one felled.

This is “biodiversity offsetting” in action. In an interview with The Times Paterson said that,

“The point about offsetting is it will deliver a better environment over the long term.”

Paterson’s attempt to justify the bulldozing of ancient woodland by planting trees somewhere else is patently ridiculous. Preserving Britain’s ancient woodlands is important because of their history, their biodiversity, and their cultural values. While the biodiversity may return (in several hundred years time), the historical record and cultural values are gone forever, no matter how many new trees are planted.

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tried to play down Paterson’s comments, describing them as “very hypothetical”.

But in the interview with The Times, Paterson argued that offsetting should be compulsory and used the M6 toll road around Birmingham as an example of how biodiversity offsets could work:

“I think it was 10,000 mature trees [lost] and they planted a million young ones. Now people will say that’s no good for our generation but over the long term that is an enormous increase in the number of trees. That is a practical example of a high amount of planting following a tragic loss of some wonderful trees.”

The M6 toll road was built through the green belt, which is supposed to be protected from development. It damaged two Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Dozens of people’s homes were demolished.

Visit Climate Connections for a petition against Paterson’s plans, and for more info on the campaign against biodiversity offsets.

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