Britain 2006: we have the cleanest river and bathing water in living memory and the freshest air since the onset of the industrial revolution while our flood management strategy prevents and estimated £3 billion of damage every year.

The EA can justly claim a generous slice of the credit for this but, as the agency’s chief executive Barbara Young acknowledged, there are still areas where the environment is suffering and much work to be done.

“On our tenth anniversary we can see that the Environment Agency has played a major part in overseeing a remarkable change in the quality of our environment,” she said.

“Since 2000, 100,000 homes have had flood risk reduced through new or improved flood defences. Those who treat the environment with contempt, such as fly-tippers and rogue businesses, now face the likelihood of an appearance in court thanks to the Environment Agency’s hard working enforcement and legal teams. Air and water is cleaner than it has been for 100 years,” she said.

But not everything is so rosy, and while battles have been won the biggest threat – climate change – is nowhere near under control.

Water shortages are also a growing concern.

Climate change is the number one global challenge to the environment and it is happening now. Its effects are being seen across the world, including in the UK.

“We all need to reduce emissions of gases that affect the atmosphere to limit more damaging changes, and we need to adapt to the effects of climate change we are experiencing already, such as rising sea levels and changes in seasonal rainfall,” said Baroness Young.

“The way our society uses resources cannot continue. We are using more and more water. Taking too much water from the environment is damaging wetlands and the wildlife that depends on them and risking essential supplies to the environment and business.

“Building development puts pressure on water supplies and the ability to deal with sewage and waste. We also need to plan the location and design of new development carefully to make sure people are not put at risk from flooding.

“We need to reuse and recycle products more to make more efficient use of materials and reduce the amount of waste we produce.

“As regulated industry reduces its pollution, other diffuse pollution from land, roads and urban areas has emerged as a major cause of poor water quality. Traffic emissions also affect air quality, often close to where people live, and damage wildlife habitats.

“The environment is important to everyone’s wellbeing. People tell us that they are concerned about the quality of the environment where they live and the effect of pollution on their health. The poorest people often live in the worst environment.”

And, says the EA, a good environment is good for business, with more and more companies finding it pays to be green, while investors are looking more closely at companies’ environmental records.

“Our environment is affected by changes to the whole world, as well as national policies and local decisions,” said Baroness Young.

“We will play our part in responding to all of these to improve and protect our environment internationally, nationally and locally.

“Only by doing that can we achieve a better place for future generations”.

The next ten years will bring a new set of challenges to the agency, Clive Bates, head of environmental policy, told edie.

“The Environment Agency expects to see more of the danger signals of climate change emerging – drier summers, wetter winters, more floods and droughts and threat to biodiversity,” he said.

“We can begin to expect high summer temperatures, like we experienced in 2003 when over 20,000 people died in Europe, to become more common.

“Looking globally, we might expect those most vulnerable to environmental change to suffer more through famines and extreme weather events.

“However, we should expect to see cleaner rivers and seas, better management of waste through recycling and waste reduction, serious attempts to control traffic and air pollution and a more sustainable energy system with more renewables and far better energy efficiency.”

Asked if the agency was hopeful about the future, Mr Bates said: “The Environment Agency is an optimistic place because we believe we make a huge difference to the environment, however powerful the trends that are ranged against us.

“We can’t avoid climate change impacts now, but we can prepare and adapt to the impacts and we can do more to reduce the cause.

“We’ve got some great challenges to deal with in tackling diffuse pollution from thousands of small sources like farms and small businesses.

“Overall, we are inching our way towards sustainable development when our society, economy and environment will be in balance and each can co-exist without destroying the others.

“There is a long way to go, but over the next ten years, the Environment Agency will be at the heart of moving us towards a truly sustainable society.”

Sam Bond

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