Offsets – a dirty word?

- Written by Celeste Morgan - 

While I consider myself an environmentally-minded person, I have to admit I do take the occasional flight. Worse still, when I book that flight I never choose to purchase a carbon offset. This is despite the cost of the offset being minimal. Why? Don’t I care about taking action on climate change? Don’t I want to take responsibility and minimise my impact?

Well, absolutely I do, but as soon as you mention the word ‘offset’, I’m put off. You’re dead to me, you dirty cheating offset. Some white-collared economist somewhere developed an offset scheme for this giant corporation to tick a box, probably planted a few fledgling seedlings in a remote field and decided this was the best and only option because while ‘the community’ care about the environment, they don’t care enough to spend more on it than they would on a cup of bad airport coffee. As a self-respecting greenie, this kind of mass-market environmentalism isn’t good enough for me. Any credible environmental project has to be hard-earned and meticulously-designed by specialists, right? Yes of course. With a smug little tutt, I scroll past the offset option and congratulate myself on doing the best for the world by avoiding that nasty offset and instead doing nothing.

So, when offsets are mentioned in the water sector, I immediately arch my back and spring my wolverine claws. You heathen, how dare you suggest that money be spent in a more practical and effective way to achieve the same outcomes. By even considering offsets, you are underselling our industry, ignoring the finer points of our design philosophy and over-simplfying our cause to give the non-believers an easy-out.

Like it or not, offsets are likely to be a big player in 2019. As we travel further on this journey to create water sensitive cities, the easy wins are long gone, and the difficult retrofit options to improve urban water management remain a challenge. Water quality offsets have already been explored and applied across Queensland and in Melbourne to provide developers with a set-cost option that will make ‘equivalent’ investments ‘locally’ in place of on-site solutions. The two bones of contention with offsets are usually around how we define those terms ‘equivalent’ and ‘locally’:

  • Is it equivalent – What measure are we trading in? Are there other benefits not accounted for? Who audits offsets to make sure the money is spent wisely? Do offsets contribute to just capital works or maintenance needs too?
  • Is it local – Are the benefits to the same catchment? Are we missing a rare opportunity to improve a part of the urban landscape while it is developed? Will all the ‘big’ opportunities in a local area be ‘used up’?

In Victoria, the tail-end of 2018 saw the expansion of best practice stormwater treatment requirements for the lion’s share of development types, including most infill developments and non-residential developments. This is likely to prompt some local governments to follow City of Kingston’s example to set up a local offset scheme to support council-led water sensitive urban design projects. Here, of course, the proof is in the soon-to-be-cooked pudding. On one hand offset funding could be used to simulate great projects that deliver a bunch of benefits by greening streets or secure alternative water supplies for open spaces while also achieving the same water quality outcomes. On the other-hand you could argue that these projects should already be funded by councils, and the focus of the planning laws are to deliver incremental change in the urban landscape, using development and renewal as an opportune time to introduce new green infrastructure. Is an offset another name for an opportunity lost? Or could it be the key in unlocking so much needed improvements to the public realm?

Ask anyone who has worked with offsets, and they will say success is dependant on the rules. There are two on my mind which could make a difference to how ‘good’ or ‘evil’ offsets become:

  • Limit the proportion of a public project that can be funded by offsets: Good water sensitive urban design projects have their own business case. They make sense because of the benefits they deliver. If we become reliant on offset funding to deliver projects, it may be because they aren’t good projects in the first place, and we also risk losing funding momentum within councils to support these initiatives as part of their day-to-day responsibility to improve the environment, enrich the public landscape and preserve resources. And if it is the case that a bit of ‘top-up’ will help delivery of a project, then great, an offset scheme can give a little bit to a lot of projects and stimulate a whole lot more than it would have at a lot scale.
  • Our solutions will be made to measure – so get the measure right: While our common currency for water quality measurement is often nitrogen or other pollutants, these could be used as the currency for offsets. Some fear that this is too ‘techy’ for the everyday developer and a simpler currency should be used. Kingston set up an online calculator that uses impermeable area as the currency instead which is a smart way to make it user friendly. All this led me to wonder how we can capture the wider benefits of water sensitive solutions in an offset? Is there a currency we can use that recognises other key benefits such as potable water savings, greening or infiltration?

Offsets will definitely be a place to watch in 2019.