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The global path to a better environment starts at home

On this World Environment Day, we are encouraged to come together to tackle some of the most serious environmental challenges facing our planet.

June 2018

Global co-operation is vital if we are to effectively address the increasing pressures on our world. However, global co-operation requires domestic action.

2020 is the year when a new international agreement must be reached to restore biodiversity and follow on from the Aichi biodiversity targets agreed in 2010. What better way for the UK to show global leadership than to legislate for legally binding targets to restore our environment.

Our current approach to conservation and our existing statute book has not stopped the decline of biodiversity. A fresh approach is needed and the Climate Change Act has shown that legally binding targets can have a real impact. Such targets could be in a new Environment Act alongside the new environmental watchdog to enforce them and the vital environmental principles that Defra is currently consulting on. The targets, watchdog and principles must all be delivered in new legislation to ensure the government delivers on its promise to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited it.

The government’s preferred approach in its consultation is for the watchdog to simply issue advisory notices to central government departments. Even the most dutiful Rottweiler would soon be out of work if it merely advised an intruder to leave and failed to bite his ankles whilst he stole the family silver. The government’s approach is a lapdog that will whine ineffectively. A watchdog needs teeth and the authority to use them. It must have the power to hold the government and public bodies to account. Nobody is above the law, including the government, and that is why the watchdog must have the power to commence legal proceedings, when all other options have been exhausted, to ensure our environmental law is applied and followed.

In addition to a new body to enforce environmental law, we need the environmental principles to be enshrined in primary legislation so that they (i) guide policy making, (ii) can be enforced and (iii) are used to interpret environmental law. The principles are forward looking and all public bodies should be required to act in accordance with them so that the voice of nature is not drowned out when others with vested interests are shouting loudly.

Whilst governance and principles are incredibly important, our ambition for new legislation must not be limited by the vision set out by the government in Defra’s consultation. We must look beyond just governance and principles and fight for a step change that will halt the decline of biodiversity and put the UK on a path to being a world leader in conservation.

New legislation must include a strong set of environmental targets against which the new watchdog can hold government to account. The targets must set the trajectory for the recovery and restoration of nature and biodiversity, ensuring a better environment in which people and wildlife can thrive.

Despite our best efforts, our natural world is still in decline, but Defra’s current consultation presents a great opportunity for the government to development truly world leading environmental legislation that can be championed by the UK at the next meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020. The opportunity exists now and we must grasp it.

Matthew Stanton, Solicitor, WWF-UK

Follow @MStantonUK

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.