Environment Bill: Green groups' five key asks for a 'gold standard' nature emergency response
Ahead of the Government's debate on the reformed Environment Bill, green groups from across the UK have called on Ministers to ensure it provides an emergency response to the twin climate and nature crises - without damaging the economy.
The Environment Bill was re-introduced to Parliament in its updated form last month, following almost two years of delays – largely Brexit-related - since its original inception.
Designed to set out how the UK’s green standards and environmental protection laws will look during and after the Brexit transition period, the Environment Bill is headlined by the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - the UK’s post-Brexit “watchdog” for green issues.
The independent office will scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints and enforce action against public authorities that are failing to uphold environmental standards.
Elsewhere, the Bill sets out new national powers to charge manufacturers for producing single-use plastics; to recall vehicles which do not meet legal emission standards; to mandate biodiversity net-gain for certain developments and to increase and extend the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) charges to create a more circular economy.
Local powers for councils seeking to tackle air pollution and water firms seeking to invest in climate adaptation and mitigation measures are also listed.
The Bill will have to go through the House of Commons and the House of Lords before receiving Royal Assent.
Today (26 February), it will receive its second reading in the Commons. Ahead of this meeting, scheduled for the afternoon, several key figures from across the UK’s green economy have made last-minute pleas to Ministers to ensure that the framework is both business-friendly and ambitious enough to meet national, local and international environmental crises.
Here, edie rounds up five of these key asks.
1) Stronger plastics action
The Bill, in its current form, delivers against the Conservative Party’s election pledge to ban plastic exports to developing nations. This commitment was added to the Party's Manifesto after a string of nations, starting with China, moved to limit or ban plastic waste imports, and after many media exposés telling of how exported waste documented as recycled is often littered, landfilled of burned, due to a lack of infrastructure.
It also builds on the Resources and Waste Strategy’s measures to introduce a unified system for kerbside recycling, a Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles and an EPR framework that penalises plastics producers more heavily.
Friends of the Earth is urging Ministers to bolster these commitments with a legally binding, time-bound numerical targets to stop plastic pollution at source. In a petition signed by more than 300,000 Brits, the organisation is also calling for the ban on straws, stirrers and cotton buds to be extended to all other “unnecessary” single-use plastics items.
The National Federation of Women’s Institutes is backing the petition and making an additional request for the Bill to cover “hidden” forms of plastics – such as the microfibres released by vehicle tyres and clothing and the plastics used in wet wipes.
2) A watchdog with teeth
The role, remit and position of the OEP has proven one of the Bill’s most conscientious facets since its introduction.
Under the current Bill, the OEP will sit independently from central Government and cover all environmental and climate change legislation, including the commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
While the Bill states that the OEP will have the power to take businesses, public bodies and the Government to court over any breaches of environmental law, it includes clauses stating that the body will not be able to issue fines, call senior representatives to attend Government hearings or place non-compliant organisations into ‘special measures’.
Concerns also persist around a timetable for launching the OEP – with the House of Lords having concluded that a pre-2021 launch is unlikely – and the body’s independence, following concern that the Government will determine the budget and membership of the organisation. The latter of these concerns is being voiced by the Wildlife Trusts.
3) Nature recovery
In the knowledge that the climate and nature emergencies are intrinsically linked – and given that a key facet of the circular economy is nature restoration – The Wildlife Trusts is keen to see Local Nature Recovery Strategies bolstered in the Environment Bill’s final form.
Such strategies give local authorities and devolved governments powers to go beyond national requirements and create context-specific frameworks for habitat and biodiversity restoration. The Wildlife Trusts would specifically like a guarantee that local expertise will contribute to the creation of a national framework, and that councils will be mandated to consider nature in day-to-day decisions such as planning.
4) Interim targets – and pressure to meet them
Since the UK Government set its 2050 net-zero target last year, it has faced repeated pressure to produce short and medium-term policy frameworks – particularly for the nation’s highest emitting sectors – to ensure a just transition. Bar the creation of a handful of sector deals, a policy response to these demands has not yet been delivered.
To that end, both IEMA and the Aldersgate Group are calling for stronger target-setting frameworks for the Environment Bill.
“While many of the key governance elements are included, [the Bill] falls short of the ‘top to bottom’ governance framework needed to translate national targets into private sector investment and action on the ground,” IEMA said in a statement. The body is calling for the Bill to be updated to provide “transparent criteria and processes” for long-term and interim targets, and to include requirements that the Government is penalized for failing to align with these aims.
Similarly, the Aldersgate Group said in a statement: “For businesses to have confidence in the target-setting process, the Bill needs to be more explicit about the ambition of future targets, the criteria that will be used to determine the targets and how they will work together to deliver the desired environmental improvements. This will help to ensure that future long-term targets deliver coherent environmental improvements in all priority areas.”
5) Better business clarity
IEMA and the Aldersgate Group’s recommendations to Ministers also both include clauses to help businesses make near and long-term investments that align with the Environment Bill’s vision.
IEMA, in brief, wants a simplified business planning mechanism to be provided to businesses of all sizes and sectors by the Government. Such a mechanism would provide the metrics and tools needed for businesses to factor climate and nature considerations into their investments, plans and processes – for example, by assigning a price to carbon and to natural resources.
The Aldersgate Group, meanwhile, would like the Bill to include a commitment for “successive governments to take sustained, regular action” against all targets, so that they are seen as “credible and investible” by businesses.
“This allows businesses to have confidence that the interim targets will genuinely drive government action and that remedial policy action will be taken, should it appear that interim targets will be missed,” the Group said in a statement.
This call to action is timely, given that a CDP report this week revealed that 882 of the largest European corporates are only making half the level of short-term green investments to meet net-zero by 2050.