Environment Bill: Government proposes new legally binding targets on nature, air and water

The Government has proposed new ambitions to boost biodiversity, protect habitats, reduce water consumption and pollution and halve waste. It has also put forward stricter air pollution targets, but campaigners have argued that they do not go far enough.

Environment Bill: Government proposes new legally binding targets on nature, air and water

Should consultations prove that the Government has support for implementing these targets, which were first announced today (16 March), they will be enshrined in law through the Environment Bill.

The Bill was designed to help the UK strengthen environmental protection ambitions following Brexit. It received Royal Assent in November 2021, more than two years after it was first introduced.

Around a year into the Bill’s progress, the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed that it would be used to introduce time-bound, numerical, legally binding targets on biodiversity, air quality, water and waste. The Department promised at the time that they would come into effect by the end of October 2022 and have deadlines in the 2030s.

The Department subsequently introduced a new target to halt biodiversity decline by 2030. This is in keeping with the international biodiversity targets currently being drawn up by the UN, which are due to be formally adopted in the coming weeks.

Today’s announcement from Defra builds on that pledge for nature with confirmation of the UK’s commitment to conserving 30% of land and water for nature by 2030. There is also a new 2030 target to increase species abundance on land by 10%. 

Also touted are new 2042 targets to ensure that 70% of marine protected areas are in ‘favorable’ condition, with the rest regarded as ‘recovering’; to restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat in non-protected areas and to decrease the number of species on the red list index of extinction risk.

There is also a new ‘Green Paper on Nature Recovery’ providing more in-depth information on how the Government plans to deliver on these targets.

The Green Paper was first promised by Defra in May 2021 and is designed to support the UK’s commitment to protect 30% of habitats for nature this decade. It explores whether the UK should introduce a streamlined system for classifying protected areas, and introducing new classifications for areas where active restoration efforts are taking place. 

The documents note that just 38% of the area covered by protected land schemes in the UK is currently deemed as being in good condition for nature. Also acknowledged is degradation across much of the UK’s marine protected areas. 

Defra’s proposed solution is a single legal mechanism for terrestrial designation and a single legal mechanism for marine designation, but within each having the possibility of varying levels of protection. This, it claims, could streamline work to restore sites and could make way for stricter and more targeted protections. 

Also flagged in the Green Paper are potential changes to the ways in which nature conservation and restoration is measured, to improve data and make the approach more science-based; reviews to the environmental permitting and marine licencing schemes; and measures to increase fines for those breaching environmental law.

“We have just eight years to halt nature’s decline, and so we aren’t waiting for the conclusions from this consultation to be implemented in order to put the other necessary measures in place to put us on the right trajectory,” the documents note.

There is additional confirmation that the Government will launch a Big Nature Recovery Fund with an initial £30m from Westminster coffers later this year. Consultations on the Fund took place last year. It is designed to crowd in investment in nature-based solutions at scale.

Air, water and waste

The headline target on air quality is to halve the limit on fine particles (PM2.5) in England from an annual average of 20 to 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air. The World Health Organisation last year updated its guidance on PM2.5, stating that nations should target 5 micrograms per cubic metre of air. As such, this new target has been poorly received. 

On water, Defra has set out a range of new targets for 2037, aimed at addressing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture; phosphorus loadings from treated wastewater and pollution from abandoned metal mines. 

There is also a new ambition to cut the use of water in England, on a per-person basis, by 20% by 2037. A 2019-20 baseline has been chosen for the water targets.

The Government has been accused of lagging on waste in recent times, with Covid-19-related delays plaguing consultations on – and the introduction of – measures first detailed in the Resources and Waste Strategy set out in2018.

Today’s targets build on the Strategy. They include halving residual waste, on a per-person basis, by 2042. 

Changing the trend

The targets will now be consulted upon for an eight-week period. They are designed to help the Government deliver on its commitment to leave nature in a better state for the next generation. Think-tanks, campaign groups and MPs have repeatedly warned that progress has remained off-track.

On biodiversity, the landmark 2019 State of Nature report revealed that 41% of the UK’s native plant and animal species have declined since 1970, with the trend set to accelerate without intervention. Defra’s recently-announced plans to engage the agriculture sector to help reverse this trend have been poorly received in the main.

On air quality, ClientEarth has found that three-quarters of the UK’s urban centres are experiencing air pollution levels that exceed the EUs legal limits. And, on water, while drinking water quality is high, the UK was the worst nation in Europe for bathing water quality in 2020.  Subsequently, the Government made headlines after temporarily making it easier for water companies to pump untreated waste into rivers last autumn.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow has blamed the UK’s past membership of the EU for slow progress to date. She said: “EU directives have not done enough to halt the decline of nature.

“They have led to our experts being stewards for a process, rather than stewards of the environment. We now have the freedom to do things better.”

Industry reaction

Green groups and bodies representing the agriculture and conservation spaces have broadly welcomed Defra’s announcements today. Nonetheless, there are still calls for the Department to build upon them in the future.

Greenpeace had hoped for the Government to build on the 2042 ambition to end single-use plastic use with a commitment to halve levels of sales and distribution by 2025. It had also called for a ban on industrial fishing in the UK’s marine protected areas.

ClientEarth, the Clean Air Fund and the Clean Air for All Campaign, among other organisations, had been hoping for tighter limits on PM2.5.

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s chief executive Sue Pritchard said: “We are experiencing a game-changing perfect storm. It brings together the fall-out from the pandemic, the ongoing climate and nature crises and now a geopolitical crisis with both immediate and long term impact. 

“The temptation in such volatile times is to revert to solutions that mitigate the most immediate crisis. But there is no risk-free, simple, binary choice.  We have to manage risks to food security and tackle the nature, climate and health crises. The only long term solution that makes sense is to remove our over-reliance on fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers and animal feeds and build a new food system that is fairer, more secure and sustainable.  This is not time for reverting to old and discredited tactics. It is time to be braver, more resolute and more imaginative than ever.”

The Nature-Friendly Farming Network’s chair Martin Lines said: “The restoration of nature is not an optional add on or a luxury – it’s a core building block of sustainable food production. The package of measures outlined will provide an imperative starting point in protecting and enhancing biodiversity as the lifeblood of our farmed landscapes.”

More reaction will be added as edie receives it.

Sarah George

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