I was sitting in the department of the environment in Queensland about 10 years ago when I first heard about “offsets”. The Australian Koala Foundation and others had been invited in for a briefing on this new idea, and the man in charge was nameless. He told us about “developer donations" and a "trust fund” that government would administer to manage the offsets.
For the uninitiated, an offset is a policy for a developers, miners or foresters that is going to cut down trees which allows them to do so, and which then tries to "offset" the resulting destruction by another activity. In other words, cut something down and replace it elsewhere, sometimes miles from the original site.
You can be forgiven for thinking offsets sound like a good idea, but there is so much wrong with the whole concept.
During the meeting I mentioned above, I will never forget the faces of the people who work on the ground day in, day out. One in particular looked earnestly across the table and asked “what about the baby birds?”.
The bureaucrat smiled. He didn’t answer and of course, and he wasn’t actually sure why the question had been asked in the first place.
Of course, removing old trees with hollows (essential for baby birds) is disastrous for an ecosystem. Those hollows, which can often take 200 years to form, were of great concern to all on one side of the table and indeed a legitimate question, but it was dismissed. As it turns out the person in charge was an economist, so I do not think he loses sleep about the hollows or the baby birds, and indeed the koala habitat that is destroyed on a daily basis by the offset policy, which allows our nation’s environment to be constantly diminished, through urban development, roads, mining and forestry.
Think about it from the point of view of a koala. Your tree has been chopped down. What is an offset going to do for you? Will the developer write to you and tell you where you are going? Or are you going to get there on your own? If you do, often terrified by the destruction around you, you have a pretty good chance of getting hit by a car or mauled by a dog as you are pushed out of your home.
More often, you starve to death and then government will want to fund research into why you got sick. And if you do manage to survive the initial eviction, you still have to figure out where you are supposed to go to find this new offset area, this promised land. If you are lucky and you have managed to get to the reservation, it’s still going to be years before the new trees are of any use to you, and even longer before the ecosystem is completely restored, if ever.
I mean, who thought this up anyway? It is ridiculous.
First published on The Guardian: Australia Website;