'An unambiguous weakening of current protections': Reaction to environmental aspects of Queen's speech
Key members of the UK's green economy have welcomed the inclusion of the upcoming Environment Bill in the Queen's speech to Parliament today (14 October) - but continue to question the policy framework's loopholes.
Speaking to re-open Parliament this morning after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation, the Queen laid out 22 new bills, including six different Brexit bills, seven bills concerning law and order and the highly anticipated Environment Bill.
Introduced in draft format at the end of 2018, the Environment Bill sets out how the UK’s green standards and environmental protection laws will look after Brexit, and how these will take shape in future trade deals. It is also the policy framework covering the remit of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - the UK’s post-Brexit “watchdog” for green issues.
The final version of the Bill was put to Parliament by the Queen today and will be publicly published in full shortly.
During her speech, the Queen said the Bill will "enshrine principles in law" and set legally binding "improvement targets" to reduce plastics, cut air pollution, restore biodiversity and improve water quality.
She added that the Bill will help her Government to “continue to support international action against climate change, including the implementation of the Paris Agreement”, after Brexit.
"The huge star of our legislative programme is a momentous new Environment Bill – a lodestar by which we will guide our country towards a cleaner, and greener future,” Johnson summarised.
Also laid out in the Queen’s speech and due for imminent publication are the Fisheries Bill, Agriculture Bill and Trade Bill. Each of these pieces of legislation will bolster the Environment Bill in regard to agri-food products produced in the UK and imported.
Reaction, past and present
Michael Gove, who was Environment Secretary when the Draft Environment Bill was introduced, has called it “world-leading”. Since then, however, the policy framework has faced continued criticisms.
MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have warned that the implementation of the Bill without any changes from its draft form would lead to key national environmental policies becoming "severely downgraded" from those currently mandated by the EU. Similar concerns have been voiced by more than 40 environmental organisations including Greenpeace, WWF UK and ClientEarth, while Northern Ireland’s environmental department (DAERA) has asked for the remit of the Bill to be extended in geographical scope.
This theme of reserved optimism and specific criticisms seems to have continued into how the Queen’s speech was received.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: “No matter how it’s dressed up, it’s clear that the Environment Bill will be an unambiguous weakening of current protections. It’s also undermined by Government fixation with economic growth at all costs. Business as usual won’t deliver a sustainable future.”
“We urgently need a comprehensive legal framework to give the long-term certainty needed to tackle the significant environmental challenges we face and welcome the commitment to set legally binding targets to address air pollution, plastic waste, biodiversity loss and to protect our precious water resources,” IEMA’s chief policy advisor Martin Baxter said. “We look forward to reviewing the Bill in detail, with a view to ensuring the proposals match the ambition needed to create a world-leading environmental constitution.”
“Plans under the Environment Bill to deal with plastic waste and pollution are to be commended, but these must come hand-in-hand with radical societal reform of our consumption and resource use,” SUEZ UK’s chief executive David Palmer-Jones said.
“An ad hoc, piecemeal, approach to meeting society’s collective challenge to consume fewer virgin materials and to recycle more simply won’t deliver the systemic changes needed to deliver on the praiseworthy ambitions of the Environment Act. Greater producer and consumer responsibility play a significant role in reducing our reliance on non-renewable resources. We look to the Environment Act to help give new momentum to the clear economic and environmental case for the greater production of secondary raw materials.”
"The Government's commitment to enshrine environmental principles in law to protect and improve the environment for future generations puts critical issues such as air and water quality and plastic pollution at the heart of the collective efforts needed to tackle climate and ecological breakdown," Business in the Community's environment director Gudrun Cartwright said.
"But the Government cannot solve this problem alone. Tackling climate and ecological breakdown needs to be at the heart of UK plc's strategy if we are to avoid the existential threat we face. We urge businesses to be much more ambitious by joining the dots between environmental, social and economic challenges and drive the change we need to see to create a prosperous, one planet economy.
"We only have two or three business planning cycles before our 10-year deadline to limit climate change catastrophe."
“It is encouraging to hear that both the Agriculture and Trade Bills will be reinstated in the next parliamentary session [and] even more encouraging is the confirmation that legislation will be laid for the Environmental Bill, which will unlock the UK’s ability to implement the Resources and Waste Strategy whilst holding the Government to account on green governance," The Renewable Energy Association's chief executive Nina Skorupska said.
“Although the plans to outline a National Infrastructure Strategy are welcomed, we were disappointed that there was no mention of the Energy White Paper. Already overdue following government commitments to publish in summer 2019, additional delays are impacting the UK, and the renewable and clean technology industry in particular, from planning for the future. This makes is difficult to instil confidence in potential investors and progress towards our net zero targets in a unified and constructive manner."