The Environment Bill, published today, will oblige Government to set and meet legally-binding targets for air, water, waste and wildlife. This is a hugely significant step forward in environmentalists’ long battle to oblige governments to look beyond short-term gain and plan properly for future generations.
Here are six areas where improvements are needed:
The targets must be comprehensive
Clause 1(2) obliges Government to set just a single target in each area of air, water, waste and wildlife. This is reinforced by an obligation in Clause 6 to set targets that add up to significant environmental improvement. Yet it would still be possible for Government to set a few, parochial goals that don’t add up to the cross-Whitehall, economy-wide effort needed to turn round the state of nature.
1. More detail is needed about the precise targets that must be set in each area to ensure that all urgent issues are covered. For example: air quality should start with setting WHO limits on PM2.5 particulate matter, but new goals for other pollutants like NO2 should be set when EU goals expire; and the wildlife targets should cover diversity and abundance of species, as well as quality and extent of habitats
2. There should also be a goal for reducing the UK’s international environmental footprint. Gains for nature nationally that rely on “exporting” our environmental harm are no gains at all.
The ambition must be commensurate with the scale of environmental need
The Bill itself will not set targets; it will set a process for setting targets. Unless this is transparent and science-led, there is a risk that weak targets will be set when public and parliamentary attention has moved on.
3. The target-setting process should be fully transparent and guided by independent, scientific advice. Government may be tempted to turn to an existing body, the Natural Capital Committee, to offer its advice. While the work of the NCC has been instrumental in helping to secure this important bill, it is not the right body to lead on target-setting. A new body should be constituted to offer expert advice, or the Office for Environmental Protection could lead on this crucial task.
4. The power in Clause 1 can also be exercised to revise or revoke a target. There are restrictions set out in Clause 3, but the freedom for targets to be revised is very open, leaving wriggle room for future governments to weaken tricky obligations, if circumstances have changed to render compliance costly or impractical. This power should be hemmed in with clear requirements for scientific input to prevent goals from being weakened where the right efforts simply have not been made to meet them.
Taking action today, not putting off effort for tomorrow.
The viability and affordability of any long-term target depends on taking action today. While Clause 10 requires short-term, interim way-markers to chart a course to achieving the long-term targets, these have no legal force and will not be set in law. This risks letting the current government off the hook, only for a future government to default on the targets because the scale of any last-minute efforts would be too costly.
5. Interim milestones must be meaningful. One option would be to require a government that misses an interim goal to set a “remedial action plan”, with time-bound steps to return to compliance, which itself becomes legally enforceable.
6. This could link with a stronger duty for the steps outlines in the Environmental Improvement Plan to be demonstrably capable of delivering the targets.
As it stands, the promise of legally-binding targets is significant, but there remains too much room for manoeuvre for a Government that would like to put off environmental action. A target that is a speck in the distance is bound to be missed. Government has left itself too much leeway to delay and wander off course. We need to bring urgent action forward with stronger duties to meet milestones along the way, ensuring that successive governments are all playing their part towards meeting a long-term goal, and not leaving action for the last government to take. These milestones need to be close range and set in stone so that, if they are missed, public and Parliament can press Government to get back on track.
The framework set by the bill marks a significant step forward, but it is action and exercise of those powers that will make the difference for nature. These six changes would help ensure that the Environment Bill marks the start of nature’s recovery.
Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife & Countryside Link
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
Latest Blog Posts