The long-anticipated Environment Bill leaves room for improvement

The long-anticipated publication of England’s Environment Bill is a welcome landmark for environmental policy. Keen to enshrine in law the green credentials set out by Theresa May’s premiership, the current government hailed their bill as ‘groundbreaking’ legislation.

Whilst a good first step towards clarifying the country’s environmental ambitions, the bill falls short in some cases of the clear and progressive legislation many expected. It is certainly surprising that there is no reference to the UK’s commitment to the target of net-zero carbon by 2050, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change and recently ratified by the government itself.

As always, it must be remembered that the devil will be in the detail for new policies, environmental standards and incentives that are expected to follow.

Most notably, the bill introduces a new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection. Unlike the European Commission, the body will not be able to fine government departments for failing to meet standards. The independent regulator will scrutinise environmental policy with the power to hold government departments to account.

However, the loss of the power to impose fines for missing targets could prove problematic. How exactly will the government be held up to scrutiny if punitive mechanisms are not in place? It is unclear how exactly this authority will be implemented in reality.

Nature

The protection of nature is a case in point for legislation that is a positive step in the right direction, but requires further implementation details. The Environment Bill was expected to set a detailed recovery strategy for nature and extend to the whole environment and its functions.

The reality is, it only relates biodiversity net gain to new property developments, for which it sets out a 10% net gain in biodiversity, when greater thought could be given to green corridors linking sites, infrastructure, farmland and the recovery of marine life, for example.

It is welcome to see the government positioning enhanced biodiversity as an answer to climate mitigation, but it needs to be addressed beyond property developments.

Climate adaptation must be part of any nature recovery strategy to avoid undermining future recovery, particularly in light of the State of Nature 2019 report, which highlighted a decline of over 40% of species in the UK since the 1970s. Butterflies and moths were the hardest hit, but 26 species of mammals are also at risk of disappearing. A greater focus on the protection of the most vulnerable species and habitats is needed to provide a long-term nature recovery plan.

Perhaps the bill could consider making reference to National Recovery Networks, rather than setting local authorities the task of deploying ‘local strategies’ to develop nature recovery maps. Nature doesn’t stop at boundary lines, so why should our legislation be confined to local borders?

Climate change is a worldwide concern, and if the UK is to play its part in mitigating the risks posed by it, the bill should perhaps encourage a national focus on biodiversity.

Waste and recycling

The question of the government’s post-Brexit waste management strategy was also left somewhat unclear. May’s government signed up to the EU’s circular economy directive, which proposed that producers should pay 80% of the costs associated with the disposal of packaging.

However, the present government has told the EU that the UK will have separate ‘ambitious’ standards after Brexit.

What is not clarified, is whether this means the UK will stick to, or exceed the 80% target. Indeed, there is no mention of circular economy in the document itself, although a number of elements in the bill, such as measures to extend responsibility for waste disposal to those who produce it, would support this aspiration.

Water

With regards to water resources and quality, the bill does provide a more detailed plan.

New powers have been granted to water companies to work together in improving the management and development of water resources, which will help solve cross-boundary issues and water resource imbalances.

Water management policy will be further aided by the Environment Agency’s power to revoke abstraction licenses to achieve environmental objectives.

This is welcome progress, although it is worth noting this power cannot be enforced until 2028.

The bill also provides the ability to revise the substances and standards considered in water quality assessment, which is likely to be beneficial as our understanding of the impacts of emerging pollutants and microplastics in water and sediment develops.

The need for strong environmental leadership from the UK government cannot be overstated.

Of course, this is only just the start of the bill’s legislative journey through parliament, with fruitful discussions on environmental issues to be hoped for as it is properly scrutinised.

The Environment Bill acknowledges a range of important environmental concerns but, the question remains: how will these well-meaning strategies be put into practice?

Samantha Deacon

Samantha Deacon

Senior Managing Consultant, Ramboll.

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