Regulating right: Green growth and a blue planet not red tape

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency discusses why now is the perfect time to re-examine approaches to regulation to deliver a thriving natural environment.

Regulating right: Green growth and a blue planet not red tape

(Image: Defra)

In the 1990s NYPD chief William Bratton took on a huge challenge: make then crime-ridden New York the safest major city in the US. He achieved the daunting task which many thought impossible by breaking it down into a series of small acts:  New York would be made safe “block by block, precinct by precinct, borough by borough”. 

The same approach can be applied to tackling our most daunting challenge yet: the climate emergency. As the UK gets ready to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in two weeks, one critical but often overlooked aspect is the role of regulation. This year’s Regulating for People, the Environment, and Growth 2020 Report highlights how the Environment Agency is quietly moving the U.K towards becoming a resilient net-zero nation, one small step at a time.

We are driving down greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the very worst climate shocks. Since 2010 emissions from the sites the EA regulates have decreased by 50%. We are running the new UK Emissions Trading Scheme, which caps and reduces carbon emissions from industry, business and the public sector.

A changing climate poses greater risks to human health, and the EA is helping keep our air clean from the pollutants that threaten our health. In the last decade we reduced poisonous Nitrogen Oxide by 69%, Sulphur Oxide by 86% and dangerous particulate matter that affects the heart and lungs by 47%.

Mitigation – reducing the extent of climate change by reducing our carbon output – is one half of the solution. The other is adaptation – ensuring that our communities, cities and economies are resilient to the shocks a changing climate will inevitably bring. The EA’s regulatory work is helping here too, for example by tackling unsustainable abstraction of water so that we have enough for a future of drier and hotter summers. 

So: regulation works. Done right, it creates a stable and safe environment for industries to work in. This promotes a strong economy; jobs; innovation; health; protects wildlife, water and the natural world; and supports the levelling up agenda by tackling the worst environments often in the poorest communities.

But it’s not all perfect: our report shows annual pollution incidents remain high; 86% of river water bodies have not reached good ecological status; and the scourge of waste crime continues with more than 400 illegal waste sites still active. The quality of our environment is not where we want it to be. New pressures are not just from climate change and population growth: public expectation rightly continues to rise off the back of previous gains. There is a lot more to do.

If we want to make regulation fit for the future, we can. Leaving the European Union gives us a chance to reset the dial on the outcomes we want and how to achieve them. The recovery from Coronavirus requires unleashing our economy and supporting innovation to stimulate sustainable growth and shared prosperity. The answer is regulation that is proportionate, risk-based and outcome focused; that is business friendly, as long as business does the right things; and which has the teeth necessary to tackle polluters who do not. Effective regulation also needs to be properly funded. The cardinal environmental principle is that the polluter should pay. And those who pose the greatest risk of pollution – farmers, water and sewage companies, waste businesses and so on – should pay the full cost of the regulation necessary to ensure that pollution doesn’t happen. Where that isn’t possible, and sometimes it isn’t, the government should make up the difference.

At the UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow this November, all eyes will be on the new targets and ambitions world leaders bring to the table to protect our planet. But without robust regulation, these ambitions will not be realised. If we will the ends of climate action, we need to will the means to achieve them. Bill Bratton solved New York crime by good policing, support for law-abiding citizens and a tough approach to the criminals, taking back the city block by block. If we want to stop the surge of climate chaos, we need to empower regulators to regulate well, support all those businesses that do the right thing and go after those who don’t, one by one.

2020 was a year like no other: I am incredibly proud of the people in the Environment Agency, mostly unseen, who dealt with the unprecedented challenges brought by a global pandemic to regulate our industries in difficult and dangerous circumstances. This report highlights their huge achievements. With the approach, the right regulation and the right resources, we have even greater potential to turn the climate crisis into an opportunity to create a better place.

Comments (1)

  1. John Mathias says:

    Many people, politicians included are still talking about growth, but is growth compatible with creating a sustainable planet or do we need to be looking at achieving economic – ecological stasis whereby the the use of resources is in sync with natural cycles of regeneration and more equitably distributed so that all peoples of the world have a chance to thrive?

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