Environment Bill returns to Parliament with new binding targets for nature

Pictured: Rannerdale Knots

The Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons for the Bill, which was delayed until this Parliamentary term back in January, are both tabled for today.

The Bill was first introduced in 2019 and sets out the UK’s plans for delivering against the long-term targets of the 25-Year Environment Bill after Brexit. To the Brexit point, the UK will not be able to formally launch its independent watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), until the Bill receives Royal Assent. Ministers expect the body to be running in an interim, non-statutory form from this July.

Amendments to have been made to the Bill since it was last in Parliament provide more clarity on the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) commitment to legally binding targets on topics including nature, water and waste.

Now, the Bill includes a legally binding target on species abundance for 2030. The overall aim is to halt species decline for all declining populations, including hedgehogs, red squirrels, water voles and certain kinds of bat. 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.

Supporting the delivery of this target will be a new Species Reintroduction Taskforce, covering England. Landowners, NGOs and nature experts will sit on the Taskforce. It will be tasked with introducing declining species to both past habitats and new areas, including beavers and wildcats.

More broadly, Defra has stated that it will begin to develop a ‘Green Paper’, outlining how it plans to meet the new 2030 target and, also, the UK’s commitment to protect 30% of terrestrial habitats for nature this decade. This latter commitment will be formalised at the 15th Biodiversity COP later this summer. Green groups have been urging Defra not to simply leave habitats that are currently classed as protected but are already significantly degraded. The ‘Green Paper’ is slated for publication later this year.

The Bill has also added new duties on water pollution. Defra will be required to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows by September 2022 and report to Parliament on the progress towards implementing the plan.  

Defra has told media outlets that, at the Bill’s reading, viewers will be reminded of a new draft Principles Policy Statement, designed to help ensure that other pieces of legislation do not undermine the UK’s long-term environmental targets. The framework includes a polluter pays principle – a commitment to ensure that those who cause pollution or damage are financially responsible for mitigation or compensation.

All of the changes were originally flagged via the Queen’s Speech earlier this month, marking the re-opening of Parliament after local elections, and via announcements from Defra last week.

“As we build back greener from the pandemic, it is vital that we address the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss and protect and improve the environment for future generations,” Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said. “The Environment Bill will ensure we deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth, which is why it is essential that we complete its passage into law as soon as possible.”  

In edie’s 2020 ‘Green Recovery’ survey of more than 240 sustainability and energy professionals, more than half flagged the Environment Bill as their top green policy priority. 

This is a breaking news story. Further updates and reaction will be added as edie receives it.

Sarah George

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