EA's State of the Environment report uncovers serious flaws in our progress
Industry has come a long way in the past five years but we still need to clean up our act once we get home.This was the message underlying the Environment Agency's report , State of the environment 2005: a better place? launched on Thursday, June 9.
The document used the most detailed and accurate data available from the past five years to look at how our environment, and what we are doing to it, had changed since the last report issued in 2000.
Looking at eight key areas, it made for bleak reading overall with land, climate change and flooding all getting worse.
Slight improvements were recorded for wildlife, waste and use of resources though the situation there still offered little to be proud of as the 2000 starting point left a lot to be desired.
Water, air quality and the environment where we live had all seen improvements, though hidden behind this silver lining was the grey cloud of traffic pollution, waterways full of phosphates and nitrates from intensive farming and a marked difference in environmental quality between affluent and poor areas.
While read in its entirety the report should make us hang our heads in shame, there are a few things that shine out as successes.
There have been massive cuts in pollution from regulated industry, with suphur dioxide down by 15% and particles down by an impressive 48%.
Improved fuel and engine technology has cut nitrogen dioxide emissions from traffic by a quarter, though an increase in car use has undermined the technological advances to a degree.
Water quality has improved dramatically and, by and large, we are breathing cleaner air.
Introducing the document at its launch in London's Millbank, the EA's chairman Sir John Harman said: "Behind these 24 pages lie years of research and investigation and mountain ranges of data.
"Some of the pressures have eased, some have intensified.
"There are new challenges and our knowledge and understanding of the world around us has changed too.
"We hope this report will help industry and government and communities all over the country to look again at our impact on the environment."
Baroness Barbara Young, chief executive of the agency, outlined the findings of the report in more details, praising industry for getting down to the job at hand and reducing emissions, cutting waste, putting a lid on pollution incidents and increasing recycling rates.
"There have been substantial reductions in pollution of most kinds from industry and buisness," she said.
"And we've got the cleanest water we've had for many years but there are still issues to address, mainly to do with our ageing sewer system and run-off from roads and farms.
"80% of British waters now meet the toughest EU standards and pollution from hazardous substances has fallen.
"But it's not all good news, improvements are beginning to slow and fewer than half our urban rivers are good quality."
She analysed the reports eight categories, building up a picture of the general devastation of the environment while providing a few rays of hope.
Baroness Young on wildlife
- "We're beginning to see some recovery in rarer species and
habitats but we're still not seeing enough response from our more common
species and there is still a risk of losing parts of the complex web of life
on which we all depend."
- "More than a quarter of species are in decline and farmland birds are at 57% of 1970 levels."
- "Another heart stopping statistic is that 70% of our marine stocks are below safe levels due to climate change, over fishing and the impact on habitats: we really need to tackle the extreme degradation of the marine environment."
- Otters, a key species for tracking healthy waterways, are on the rise both in population numbers and areas they are living.
- Coarse fish numbers are also up due to reduced pollution.
- "Resources are still being used too inefficiently and that generates too much waste.
- "Things are improving but we're only at the beginning of looking at the whole process from creation to disposal as a single entity.
- "We're beginning to see the impact of a whole swathe of local and national government initiatives over the past few years.
- Again regulated industry does well, recycling more than 50% of its waste for the first time.
- Pollution incidents caused by the waste management sector went down by a quarter between 2002 and 2003.
- recycling rates continue to rise while the waste we produce falls but we still have a long way to go before we are on a par with many European countries.
- The amount of water we are using continues to rise, going up 7% between 1992 and 2002.
- "If we don't use less water in the future and deal with leakage from the distribution system and design our homes to be more water efficient we can guarantee the droughts we're having in the south east of the country will occur with ever more frequency as climate change builds."
- Water quality has improved, though most urban rivers still fail to meet the EU's top standards.
- Knowledge of soils is still a bit muddy and more research is needed into how they work and how the micro-organisms that live in them behave.
- "We are getting better at cleaning contaminated land but poor soil management and careless use of land continue to have damaging effects on the environment."
- Policies to reuse brownfield sites for building before developing greenfield areas are beginning to bite.
- Soil erosion is not a phenomenon limited to the developing world - careless land management has led to 17% of Britain showing some signs of erosion, leading to waterways becoming clogged with soil which is bad news for fish.
- Overall much, much better air quality.
- sulphur dioxide emissions are down, particles are down, nitrogen dioxide is down, odour complaints are down.
- Nitrogen oxide emissions are up, due to increased use of coal-fired power stations.
- Towns and cities still clogged with smog due to traffic emissions.
On where we live
- Better access to green spaces for recreation.
- Serious pollution incidents fallen but there were still 1,250 incidents recorded in 2003.
- Marked difference in pollutant levels between rich and poor areas.
On climate change
- "Though the scientists are telling us it's too early to see the true impact of climate change we know temperatures are rising and other weather events are becoming more extreme.
- "We need to get ahead of the game and prepare for the impact of climate
change while addressing the causes.
- We're on target for emissions agreed by Kyoto protocol, not on target for
stricter self-imposed 20% reduction of CO2 by 2010.
- England only producing 1.9% of electricity from renewable sources.
- Dramatic rise in air travel accounting for small but significant slice of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Flooding is increasing and is expected to continue to increase as the effects of climate change kick in.
- "The number of homes at risk from flooding expected to increase from 1.5million to 3.5million by 2080.
- "Of the 55 times the Thames barrier has been raised since construction in
1983, 28 have been in the last five year."
- People are not prepared - only 16% of those living in high risk areas would know how to respond in the case of a flood.
- Government investment in flood defences will go some way to alleviate the problem but cannot provide complete protection.
Baroness Young said striving for a healthier environment was in all of our interests.
"The report at its minimum is a technical compendium bringing together data from a wide range of sources," she said.
"But it's got a bigger meaning for all of us.
"There's a real cross over between environmental quality, health and enjoyment of life.
"A good environment is good for people's mental health and there are sound economic arguments for a cleaner, greener environment.
"Inefficient use of materials, for example, creates unnecessary waste and costs UK business around £3billion per year.
"Our green and pleasant land is also one of our greatest assets attracting tourism and inward investment."
Lord Robert May, president of the Royal Society, also spoke at the launch, painting an almost apocalyptic picture of the state of the environment.
He said the few nuggets of hope in the EA's report were by and large, fools gold, and radical action needed to be taken to address the situation before it spiralled beyond our control.
He lambasted the politicians for their 'totally gutless avoidance of introducing legislation to try to address the issues' and members of the scientific community for concentrating their ecological studies on 'attractive animals, preferably in exotic locations, that reflect their own romantic image of themselves' rather than getting their hands dirty studying soils and other little-understood disciplines.
Consumers also came under fire for absurd extravagances such as excessive packaging and criminally wasteful use of energy.
"We could halve our energy consumption without any diminutive effect on our lives but there's no indication we're actually going to get down and do it," said Lord May.
Summing up, he said the EA's report told us what we already knew but were trying to ignore.
"We've got to take this seriously else future generations will pay the price for our sloth," he said.
"We've never before faced such a global threat of our own creation, no species ever has.
"If we don't begin effective action now it's going to become much harder to stop the runaway train once it's gathered momentum."
By Sam Bond