Policy and business rhetoric over the need to ‘value’ nature has animated recent efforts by the UK Government to introduce mechanisms for biodiversity offsetting (BDO) into English land planning systems. The approach seeks compensation for habitat loss associated with infrastructure and residential development through securing gains for losses ‘in a measurable way’. As such BDO is frequently positioned as a win-win solution that reconciles economic development and conservation through delivering the ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity ‘values’. ‘No net loss’ – also recently incorporated to the heart of EU conservation strategy – is an abstract schema that frames biodiversity as an aggregated sum of value facilitating the exchange of calculated and equivalent ‘units’. I argue that NNL is performative in the sense that it conceives of a total state of biodiversity and acts as a potent conceptual technology rendering nature ‘offsettable’. In tracing the assemblages of no net loss over four decades, I connect the historical factors of its origins with contemporary uptake in conservation policy in England. Through documenting the discursive, institutional and material elements of NNL this talk highlights why this accounting concept has become a new conservation orthodoxy and explores some of the implications for socio-ecologies under its calculative gaze. Empirical detail will illustrate real practices of ecological commensuration – with questionable conservation outcomes – that are produced through offsetting in practice.

A good reading on the background of the discussion is the paper “TEEB begins now”: a virtual moment in the production of natural capital (PDF).

Dr Louise Emily Carver is a human geographer exploring the science-policy interface of biodiversity conservation and completed her PhD at Birkbeck in 2017. She conducts institutional ethnographies documenting practices of valuation in the green economy and increasingly their interaction with digital technologies. Drawing on STS, economic geography and political ecology perspectives, her research explored the England’s recent experimentations with biodiversity offsetting, questioning what it means to value biodiversity in practice, how the ensuring values materialise and with what effects.

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