Government assessment shows despite recent improvements, environment remains under threat

The latest comprehensive governmental study of the environment in England and Wales shows real improvement in the quality of water, air and the populations of some wildlife over the past two decades, but also that many outstanding and emerging challenges remain.

Environment 2000 and Beyond, compiled by the Environment Agency (EA) and released on 8 January shows that the quality of the land, and most habitats and wildlife of England and Wales remain under threat, and emphasises that, as one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, these nations are under more pressure than most from housing, transport and intensive land use.

Among the most important areas of concern to be found in the report are:

  • air quality still periodically fails health standards in suburban and rural areas;
  • water quality is affected by diffuse pollution (see related story) and is still poor in some urban areas (eg North East and West England);
  • important terrestrial habitats, particularly Sites of Special Scientific Interests, are in an unfavourable condition and have been reduced to small fragments with 57% of SSSIs in an unfavourable condition in 1999/2000;
  • many wildlife species, including water voles and farmland birds (see related story), are still under threat;
  • the quality of soils is thought to be deteriorating;
  • salmon populations continue to decline in some rivers and sea fish stocks are at serious risk (see related story);
  • high emissions of greenhouse gases are predicted to accelerate climate change;
  • noise, light and litter pollution are widespread nuisances, with a 3% annual growth in municipal waste.

Among the good news presented in the report is the fact that that over 95% of English and Welsh bathing waters now meet the mandatory European standards (see related story), and 92% of rivers are classified as good or fair (see related story). There have also been increases over the last decade in broadleaved woodland habitats and fens, and marshes, and no further loss in hedgerows. Species like the otter, which had previously suffered serious decline, are now enjoying strong population growth, and air quality is also now generally improving, says the report.

Environment 2000 and Beyond also examines the vast differences in environmental quality that exist between different regions. For example Wales and South West England have by far the best water quality, but are more vulnerable to the effects of atmospheric pollution.

“The report suggests that most improvement has come in areas where there is a strong regulatory framework, but there is also a need for those outside that framework – in the SME (small to medium-sized enterprises) world and in agriculture, for example-to seek new ways of addressing environmental performance,” commented EA Chief Scientist, John Murlis. He emphasised that despite a growing awareness of ‘green’ issues, more individual responsibility is needed by society. “The Agency targets its regulation and work with industry at reducing harmful emissions and discharges, but there are many other pressures on the environment, particularly from transport and various forms of land use,” Murlis said. “The societal demands driving these activities are influenced by government policies but result largely from people’s lifestyle choices: where they live, how they travel to work and the goods they consume.”

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