‘A concerning picture’: UK still set to miss every key nature target, watchdog warns

A decline in species abundance is confirmed, as is stagnant progress in improving water quality. Stock image, picturing Walthamstow

According to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), there has been year-on-year improvement in some areas relating to the UK Government’s key environmental goals, including improving air quality; reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving climate adaptation.

Nonetheless, the rate of progress has not been rapid enough to put England on track to meet new legally binding targets – even though these targets, in and of themselves, have been broadly criticised as unambitious. That is the conclusion of the OEP’s latest report, out today (19 January).

The OEP also documented how, on the whole, signs of “encouraging progress” are “the exception” rather than the rule. The report states that the watchdog could not concluded that there have been any improved outcomes, nationally, on enhanced water quality, improved biosecurity or helping plants and wildlife to ‘thrive’.

On the latter, it confirms a 17% decline in priority species abundance between 2013 and 2018 and an 82% decline in species abundance more widely between 1970 and 2018. The Environment Act targets species abundance in 2042 that is greater than 2022, and at least 10% greater than 2030. Critics of this target argue that it ignores the damage already done pre-2022.

Progress on waste, the OEP stated, has gone backwards. It confirms an increase in residual waste production per capita of 13% between 2014 and 2019. The Environment Act targets a 50% reduction by 2042, against a 2019 baseline, but the OEP’s findings prove that previous trends will need to be bucked to achieve this. They also raise questions on whether 2019 is an appropriate baseline year.

Backwards progress is also regarded in terms of water consumption, which is increasing rather than decreasing.

OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey summarised: “There have been recent improvements in air quality and people’s engagement with nature, as Covid lockdowns changed the way we live our lives. But many extremely worrying environmental trends remain unchecked, including a chronic decline in species abundance.

“Using the data and information available, our assessment shows that the current pace and scale of action will not deliver the changes necessary to significantly improve the environment in England. But there is clear opportunity to change course.”

Environment Improvement Plan recommendations

The report states that the Government can sieze this opportunity through good design of its next Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP), which is due for publication later next year.

Rather than recommending specific targets, the OEP has set out attributes which it believes an effective EIP should include, beyond strong top-line visions that are aptly broken down.

These include measures to improve coordination across government departments and different levels of government; measures to improve data collection and collation and improved governance. The OEP also wants the Government to improve its methods of assessing progress, enabling it to notice adverse trends and assess the cause as a priority.

Additionally, it wants assessment regimes that look more into the future, bridging the gap between short-term EIPs and the 25-Year Environment Plan.

edie reached out to Defra and the department said it would carefully consider the OEP’s recommendations. It also confirmed that the new EIP will be “delivery-focussed”.

Green economy reaction

The Environmental Audit Committee’s chair Philip Dunne MP said the OEP’s report presents a “concerning picture” with its “unflinching analysis of the current situation”.

He said: “It is deeply disappointing that progress against so many crucial targets is falling short of what is needed to secure nature recovery. We face a nature and climate emergency and the importance of restoring nature cannot be overestimated.

“Two years ago, the Committee’s report on biodiversity and ecosystems stressed the importance of engaging people with the natural world around them. It is encouraging that the OEP has identified improvements in this area. But these alone are not enough.

“In its refreshed EIP, due to be published shortly, the Government has the opportunity to set clear and ambitious – but achievable – targets to address the worrying decline of nature. I look forward to being able to quiz Ministers on how they intend to deliver on their assurances that they will be leaving the environment in a better state than that in which they found it.”

Similarly, Wildlife and Countryside link’s chief executive Richard Benwell called the report “a clear warning that rapid, concerted action and investment is needed across Government to deliver the big green promise of halting the decline of nature by 2030”.

This promise was ratified by the UK and dozens of other nations at the UN’s most recent biodiversity COP in Montreal last month.

Benwell added: “To halt the decline of nature, the days of fluffy wish lists, and back-of-the-settee funding for nature policy must end. The EIP needs scientifically sound delivery plans to stop the decline in wildlife, backed by the funding to make it happen.

“Of course, that means getting the whole of Government pressing in the same direction. Defra can’t make a success of restoring nature while DLUHC dallies on planning reform, and while BEIS presses ahead with the destructive deregulatory agenda of the Retained EU Law Bill. The Prime Minister should sponsor the EIP and rally the whole of Government to deliver it.”

Wildlife and Countryside Link published a report this week along with other environmental NGOs stating that the Retained EU Law Bill could cost the UK economy more than £82bn over a 30-year period. The Bill, in its current guise, would “sunset” the majority of regulations retained as part of the withdrawal process from the EU that expire at the end of the year. Many green groups believe this would be too swift a process to ensure that environmental standards are not at least upheld.

The Aldersgate Group’s head of public affairs and communications Signe Norberg added: “While the 25 Year Environment Plan set out Government’s long-term vision for the environment, the report is clear: more coordination is needed to restore and reverse the decline of nature. Government now has the opportunity to build on its vision and publish an ambitious and robust environmental improvement plan at the end of the month, featuring better alignment and coordination at all levels of Government, including local and national government.

“A comprehensive and detailed plan would ensure business can commit tangible investments towards nature restoration. Ambitious and clear long-term as well as interim targets – supported by a detailed delivery plan and a whole-of-government vision for the environment – will create a stable framework within which the private sector can invest. It will enable them to accelerate and implement their own plans to address the nature crisis, as well as create new markets and generate jobs across the country.”

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