‘The Government must raise its sights’: Green economy reacts to new Environment Bill targets

Among the targets is a new aim to increase species abundance on land by 10% by 2030

The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs has today (16 March) launched an eight-week consultation on new targets to conserve and restore nature, reduce water and air pollution, improve water efficiency and slash waste. 

Click here to read edie’s coverage of the announcement, which lists all the major target proposals. 

The targets will be enshrined into law using the Environment Bill, also known as the Environment Act, following the consultation. Defra had first promised targets of this kind back in August 2020, stating that they would need to come into effect before autumn 2022. 

Also published today by Defra was a  ‘Green Paper on Nature Recovery’ – a document setting out how the Government plans to use legislation and regulation to meet the new targets. That document also outlines, in broad terms, the Government’s approach to funding. 

Detailed in the Green Paper are plans to introduce a streamlined system for classifying protected areas, and introducing new classifications for areas where active restoration efforts are taking place. 

In announcing the targets and unveiling the Green Paper, Environment Secretary George Eustice said it was Defra’s intention to “set a clear, long-term plan for nature’s recovery”.

Eustice said: “In a post-EU era, we now have the freedom to move towards a system that focuses on nature’s recovery as well as its preservation, and which places more emphasis on science and less emphasis on legal process. This change in approach will help us in the pursuit of the targets we are setting under the Environment Act.” 

However, some green groups have questioned whether the targets will be strong enough for the UK to deliver on commitments to leave nature in a better state for the next generation. Loopholes have been pointed out regarding issues such as the pollution of rivers by water companies, the need to reduce resource consumption to reduce waste and litter, and the need to restore terrestrial habitats that are classed as protected but have declined. 

Business groups are also questioning whether Defra’s approach will help to leverage investment in nature restoration from the private sector at scale. 

Here, edie summarises the reaction… 

Wildlife and Countryside Link had expected an overall target for the state of rivers and streams; better targets for water companies and a target to restore protected habitats on land.

The NGO’s chief executive Dr Richard Benwell said: We fully support the Government’s world-leading target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030, which we campaigned for in the Environment Act. But the Government must raise its sights on today’s proposals or fall far short of the aim of restoring our environment. We can’t afford to take 20 years to stand still on nature’s recovery.

“The Government first promised to pass on nature in better condition in its 2010 manifesto, and again in its 25 Year Environment Plan. Setting a 2042 target that could mean wildlife is less abundant than it is today falls short of that oft-repeated promise.

“The targets for water could give the impression of progress, while allowing the real-world condition of our rivers and streams to decline. The targets miss out major sources of pollution from water and sewage companies, they depend on unreliable methods of measurement, and they set no ambition at all for the overall quality of our rivers. That is completely out of step with demand for healthier rivers.

“The Government has asked the right questions about protecting wildlife sites and species in its Green Paper, but it hasn’t come up with the right answer.

“How can we improve protection for wildlife sites and species? The answer isn’t to make changes to names and processes. It is to designate more sites in the network, and increase protection and investment across our important wildlife areas, so that they can no longer be harmed by development, over-exploitation or pollution.”

Greener UK’s senior parliamentary affairs associate Ruth Chambers said: “The targets on offer are a decent start, but it’s hard to see them making the necessary changes at the necessary speed. Genuine ambition would see targets for protected habitats and resource consumption, and with shorter deadlines. We cannot wait 15 years or longer to see if there’s an improvement.”

The Aldersgate Group’s head of public affairs and communications Signe Norberg said: “Businesses across the economy – from water and food to energy and construction – have a key role to play in delivering a positive step-change in nature restoration and see this as a key part of improving their resilience and competitiveness.

“To this end, businesses are strongly supportive of the introduction of ambitious environmental regulations and targets that are set at the right level, have clear lead-in periods and are properly enforced. Today’s publication of the Nature Recovery Green Paper and the targets consultation is a welcome step forward. However, to attract meaningful and long-term private investment, the ultimate targets and reforms must aim to substantially improve environmental standards and must result in bold, forward-looking, well joined-up and properly enforced environmental regulations, policies and market mechanisms.”

“To be credible, the new nature improvement targets under the Environment Act must focus on delivering significant environmental improvements and it is not yet evident from the consultation that this is the case for all targets.

“Critically, businesses can only respond to long-term targets if these are backed by nearer-term interim targets and clear policies and incentives, both of which will need to be clearly set out in the next Environment Improvement Plan due in January 2023. Today’s long-term targets consultation provides us with some important initial building blocks. But to achieve the vision that underpins the Environment Act, it is essential that this process delivers bold and carefully joined-up targets across all key areas of policy, including on resource efficiency where policy progress has stalled in recent years.”

WWF’s executive director of advocacy and campaigns Kate Norgrove said: “Not only do we need to see increased ambition from the UK Government when it comes to setting key targets, but – to make real progress – targets must be matched by bold action. All of government must prepare to go further, faster to protect and restore England’s precious habitats, and to slash the UK’s global environmental footprint.  

“Boosting nature will enhance the resilience of our food system and drive down UK emissions but to deliver, ministers now need to supercharge the pace of change, starting with action to accelerate a shift to nature-friendly, net-zero, regenerative farming and land use, and a nature-positive finance system.”  

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s chief executive Sue Pritchard said: “We are experiencing a game-changing perfect storm. It brings together the fall-out from the pandemic, the ongoing climate and nature crises and now a geopolitical crisis with both immediate and long term impact. 

“The temptation in such volatile times is to revert to solutions that mitigate the most immediate crisis. But there is no risk-free, simple, binary choice.  We have to manage risks to food security and tackle the nature, climate and health crises. The only long term solution that makes sense is to remove our over-reliance on fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers and animal feeds and build a new food system that is fairer, more secure and sustainable.  This is not time for reverting to old and discredited tactics. It is time to be braver, more resolute and more imaginative than ever.”

The Nature-Friendly Farming Network’s chair Martin Lines said: “The restoration of nature is not an optional add on or a luxury – it’s a core building block of sustainable food production. The package of measures outlined will provide an imperative starting point in protecting and enhancing biodiversity as the lifeblood of our farmed landscapes.

“As farmers, we pride ourselves in producing food for people to eat and managing landscapes that will support future production. But half of the arable crops produced in the UK are for animal feed or energy, not human consumption. We should be using arable crops not fit for people to feed to livestock. We cannot deny how odiously flawed this system is and it’s one that we pay the price for in times of crisis.”

Natural England’s chair Tony Juniper said: “Our network of protected sites has been the backbone of England’s conservation effort for seven decades. It has been vital for hanging on to many special places, and many of our most vulnerable species, but we can and must do better. As nature faces ever-increasing pressures, including from the effects of climate change, it is no longer sufficient to maintain the remnants of nature that have survived, but to invest in large-scale recovery.

“Ambitious targets to halt the decline in species abundance and to increase the area of land and sea protected for Nature, backed by a range of new policies to meet them, means that we are in a strong position to shift up a gear – not only protecting what’s left but also to recover some of what has been lost.

“Natural England will work with government and other partners to help achieve these important new environmental targets, ensuring that any new system of protections not only maintains but restores our depleted natural world, contributing to England’s Nature Recovery Network.”

More reaction will be added as edie receives it.

Sarah George

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