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Can US mitigation banking policy help UK-specific climate challenges?

Having led on environmental programmes Stateside, Carrie Dietz believes White House legislation can provide an invaluable blueprint to support British nature recovery.

selective photography of green leaf plant

Environmental services practices are rapidly growing across the engineering industry in the UK, as well as the rest of the world.

Developing and implementing sound protection strategies and viable environmental solutions is the most significant element of environmental engineering work. As global communities begin to coalesce around the importance of a sustainable future, the range of environmental projects has become incredibly wide-ranging.

Environmental professionals may be engaged in stakeholder relations, biodiversity net gain, negotiating community benefit and collaborating across various interest groups to form sustainability programs. Having worked on Burns & McDonnell environmental services teams within the US, I have now transitioned to the UK office, so have been supporting the newly formed but fast-growing team with insights from our established US practice.

Sustainability in the UK is a component of a comprehensive system designed to address climate change and the ecological crisis. This holistic approach to sustainability is driven by legislation, as well as heavy industry participation. It is motivated by stakeholders and a strong sense of social purpose to combat the effects of climate change and habitat loss.

In 2019, the UK was the first country to pass legislation that sets policy frameworks to reach net zero emissions by 2050. This front-running approach has been maintained today through the Net Zero Strategy, published in 2021. Although there has been some pushback on the pace of change in legislation, the UK still maintains a global leadership position in government-led carbon reduction practices.

This makes the UK an exciting market to operate in, with carbon reduction goals and sustainability initiatives being continually pushed forward with staged legislation. This legislative impetus kindles innovation in many sectors and motivates clients and contractors alike to find optimal solutions and to define best practices.

One of the most unique aspects of the Environment Act in the UK is the biodiversity net gain [BNG] component. Created to address the ecological crisis by protecting habitats, it takes the process a step further by mandating a 10% net gain solution, rather than just a like-for-like trade. The evaluation of the habitat is based off a standardised metric from the Department for Food and Rural Affairs [Defra].

This piece of legislation is similar to the US practice of mitigation banking. While mitigation banking is typically focused on preserving wetlands and/or endangered species, BNG focuses on the entire habitat and is more inclusive, encompassing every habitat in the U.K.

In contrast to BNG, which requires all qualifying developments to create habitat gains, US mitigation banking derives its powers from two pieces of legislation — the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. These two sections of environmental law mean that development must be shown to impact wetlands, streams, or other waterways protected by the Clean Water Act, or that development would impact species protected under the Endangered Species Act. If the development would impact waterways or protected species under either act, agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers or US Fish and Wildlife Service would require mitigation.

Although the date for implementing the regulations for BNG has now been delayed twice, the policy is intact, thus allowing additional time for industry to become better prepared. Nevertheless, there are industries, like electrical transmission, where No Net Loss and BNG have been implemented electively or as part of development requirements prior to November 2023. For example, the UK’s HS2 project between London and the West Midlands.

Burns & McDonnell has implemented a very successful mitigation banking program in the US, and the UK office is keen to learn from this and use it as a model for best practices that can be applied to the unique environmental challenges facing the UK. Relying on the experience and subject matter acumen of colleagues in the US will provide us with the opportunity to be better prepared for the transition into BNG, staying out on the front-end of adoption and practice.  

While BNG is an outstanding example of the benefits of taking a cross-national approach, there are many other aspects of sustainability that can benefit from the insights and guidance of subject matter experts who are passionate and driven professionals with perspectives gained from multiple countries. This can only strengthen the portfolio of environmental solutions benefiting a wide range of industries.

Collaboration is key to successful sustainable design and practices. As Burns & McDonnell in the UK develops a robust range of services needed by a wide range of industries in the coming decades, the benefit of a global approach drawn from experience with global development needs will ultimately facilitate better sustainability solutions.    

Carrie Deitz, is an assistant environmental scientist for Burns & McDonnell in the UK.

More features: 

Data centres are transforming into key contributors to the future power grid

How county councils are developing Local Environmental Improvement Plans framework

The importance of climate action and communication after UK local elections

Image: Matthew Smith


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