We asked three industry professionals whether government legislation should be more ambitious and build on the concept of ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ – which is currently enshrined in the Environment Bill – by introducing an ‘Environmental Net Gain’, as urged by the Environmental Industries Commission
Head of policy and communications, Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM)
The short answer is yes. Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is a step in the right direction for development and biodiversity. We are, however, in the midst of a biodiversity crisis and climate emergency, and further innovative action is urgently required. The two issues – biodiversity and climate – are inextricably linked, and we cannot address one without the other. We must restore our natural capital, and the ecosystem services flowing from these assets, to adapt to – and mitigate – the multiple environmental crises society is facing.
BNG is being mandated through the Environment Bill, while the wider concept of Environmental Net Gain (ENG) is referenced in the 25-Year Environment Plan. There is an opportunity for government to deliver on its ambition to leave the environment in a better state for future generations by building on the work done to develop BNG and bring forward ENG. The Environment Bill is the obvious mechanism to do this. It will need careful thought as to the metrics used, and special consideration will need to be given to ensure environmental gains are not traded off against each other.
ENG is an opportunity to create multiple benefits for people and the planet. For example, linking landscape-scale environmental restoration through Local Nature Recovery Strategies and the forthcoming Environmental Land Management Schemes (introduced by the Agriculture Bill) can enhance biodiversity, improve access to green space, reduce flooding, improve air and water quality, and cut carbon.
The development of ENG must involve environmental experts. It will require appropriate funding and resourcing, specifically at the local authority level, and long-term monitoring to ensure gains are achieved.
Head of policy, Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA)
The government has committed to reversing declines in biodiversity and putting natural capital at the forefront of decision-making. There is certainly no lack of ambition in these objectives, particularly given the recent State of Nature report, ongoing pressure to build houses and develop infrastructure, and a political desire to deliver on the promises made as we exit the EU. Combine all this with a climate emergency, and it is clear we are in uncharted territory. Success will require fundamental changes to how our land is managed, as well as how new development proposals are planned, designed and built.
Mandating Environmental Net Gain (ENG) alongside Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) in the Environment Bill would seem a logical step. After all, it is much better to manage our natural assets in a coherent – rather than a piecemeal – fashion. There is no accepted definition or metric for calculating ENG, however, so it is not surprising that legislating for ENG and BNG concurrently was considered a step too far. Not to mention the funding and capacity gaps faced by many local authorities, the difficulties in monitoring and enforcing existing planning obligations, and promises that the planning process would be ‘streamlined’.
Nevertheless, I would have expected to see the government publish a clear roadmap for progressing ENG – including a provision in the Environment Bill, to enable it to be introduced within a defined time period, would have been possible.
In keeping with this approach, IEMA is working with the Broadway Initiative to push more generally for long-term certainty over targets, accountability and delivery in the Environment Bill.
Colin Church MCIWM
CEO, Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3)
Tackling the declines in biodiversity we are seeing across the globe is clearly important. Alongside the moral case, we depend on pollinating insects for our food crops; exotic plants and animals for new pharmaceuticals; and natural processes to cleanse our water and air, and reprocess biological wastes.
However, just focusing on Biodiversity Net Gain, as currently often discussed, risks missing the point. While the living diversity of our world depends on the wider environment, the links are not always obvious or direct. For example, when considering whether or not to build a recycling centre, the current tools to estimate the impact on natural capital or local biodiversity will not capture the benefits of the consequent reduction in resource extraction, water use and other pollution. This is especially true if the bauxite for the aluminium is mined in Australia or the oil for the plastic comes from Alberta – those international impacts are rarely recognised. Thus, a purely local or purely biodiversity-focused assessment might lead to a decision not to build the centre, resulting in a less globally optimal outcome.
Protecting and enhancing the wider environment is also important because of the human angle. In much of the world – including the UK – the most severe and immediate impacts on human health are felt in urban areas (air quality, waste, and so on) where biodiversity is less obviously relevant and resonates less with people.
So, yes, reversing declining biodiversity is an urgent priority but, as with so much else, it needs to be connected to other issues, too, so that we don’t miss key risks or opportunities – or create other unintended negative consequences down the line.