Biodiversity offsetting and conservation: reframing nature to save it?

Biodiversity offsetting involves the balancing of biodiversity loss in one place (and at one time) by an equivalent biodiversity gain elsewhere (an outcome referred to as No Net Loss). The conservation science literature has chiefly addressed the extent to which biodiversity offsets can serve as a conservation tool, focusing on the technical challenges of its implementation. However, offsetting has more profound implications than this technical approach suggests. In this paper we introduce the concept of policy frames, and use it to identify four ways in which non-human nature and its conservation are reframed by offsetting. Firstly, offsetting reframes nature in terms of isolated biodiversity units that can be simply defined, measured and exchanged across time and space to achieve equivalence between ecological losses and gains. Secondly, it reframes biodiversity as lacking locational specificity, ignoring broader dimensions of place and deepening a nature–culture and nature–society divide. Thirdly, it reframes conservation as an exchange of credits implying that the value of non-human nature can be set by price. Fourthly, it ties conservation to land development and economic growth, foreshadowing and bypassing an oppositional position. We conclude that by presenting offsetting as a technical issue, the problem of biodiversity loss due to development is depoliticized. As a result the possibility of opposing and challenging environmental destruction is foreclosed, and a dystopian future of continued biodiversity loss is presented as the only alternative.

Conference ‘Rights to Nature: Tracing alternative political ecologies to the neoliberal environmental agenda’


The neoliberal period prior to the global financial crisis and the entrenchment of neoliberal policies and values after the crisis, in the form of fiscal austerity and extensive deregulation and privatization of public property, are radically changing non-human nature and human-environment relations. This is particularly evident in post-crisis Europe: from hydraulic fracturing (fracking), gold-mining and uranium-mining, to several cases of land-grabbing, enclosures, and loss of green public spaces and landscapes. Simultaneously, ‘green’ capitalism is emerging to offer a solution to the environmental and economic crisis by emphasizing the use of market-based environmental instruments (e.g. carbon and biodiversity offsets, payments for ecosystem services) and the need to put a price to nature.

The ‘Rights to Nature’ conference brings into dialogue both scholars and activists working on the neoliberalisation of nature and environmental policies. During one and half days, we will be discussing about the relation between nature, capitalism, and politics, and the possibility of an alternative environmental political agenda in Europe. The goal of this scholar-activist dialogue is to bridge existing gaps between theory and practice and to strengthen our critiques to neoliberalism through the exchange of ideas, experiences, and knowledge.

We would like to invite activists and scholars engaged in environmental movements in Europe to join us on the 23rd and 24th June 2016 and participate in this conference. The conference will take place at Keynes Hall (King’s College) at the University of Cambridge (UK). We are interested in people willing to present their activist work in a number of different fields, including -but not limited- the privatization of natural resources and public assets, land grabbing, the dismantling of traditional forms of using natural resources, the neoliberalisation of nature (including biodiversity conservation), and expropriation of green spaces in both urban and rural areas. Instances of these movements include anti-fracking and anti-mining movements, housing struggles, anti-biodiversity offsetting initiatives, movements against the privatization of public nature assets, including forests and water and struggles against gentrification, regeneration, urban redevelopment and/or large infrastructure projects with significant environmental impacts. This call for paper is intended for a wide variety of people, including independent activists, members of an NGO, an activist group or a political organisation, and researchers that carry out relevant research.

If you are interested, please send us a presentation title, a brief abstract (150 words) and a few lines explaining your activist work and why you feel it fits into this conference by March 27th the latest. There might also be some funding available to cover travel and accommodation expenses, but this will be allocated in a case-by-case basis.

Elia Apostolopoulou (University of Cambridge)
Jose A. Cortes-Vazquez (University of Sheffield)

This event is funded by the Geoforum annual workshop grant and supported by the University of Cambridge, the University of Sheffield and the European Commission via two Marie Curie individual postdoctoral fellowships of the 7th Framework Programme.