UK environmental performance good – but must restructure transport, energy and waste sectors

The UK has made good progress in decoupling environmental pressures from economic growth, particularly for air pollutants, according to a report. But more investment is needed to reduce waste, tackling water pollution incidents and shift transport use to reduce harmful emissions.

Municipal waste is still on the rise, with recycling rates trailing those in other EU countries, warns the report, Environmental Performance Review: The United Kingdom, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Despite the success of the Landfill Tax, the government needs to consider further measures to encourage waste minimization and recycling, to counter the effects of low costs of landfilling. The country must continue to expand its waste infrastructure, particularly for hazardous waste, says the report. Authorities need to step up inspections and establish a centralised database on non-municipal waste to keep track of waste.

Over the past decade, investments in water infrastructure have raised the quality of bathing and drinking water. But further measures such as industrial water pollution charges may be necessary to tackle residual pollution, where 16% of rivers are still of poor quality, suffering from frequent pollution incidents.

Diffuse pollution remains a problem, with pesticide, fertilizer and waste run-off from farms raising levels of nitrates and pathogens in catchment areas. The government should consider a tax on nutrients and pesticides to cover costs of diffuse pollution, advises the OECD. Water metering is another potential measure to encourage efficient water use and better management of scarce resources.

The UK has achieved large cuts in environmental pollutants, with a 42% drop in nitrogen oxides, a 77% decrease in toxic chemicals and a 70% reduction in dioxins and furans. But urban areas still suffer from pollution hotspots, with NOx and particulate emissions from transport frequently breaching regulatory standards, says the report.

Decoupling road transport use from GDP growth “remains the biggest challenge”. The government must do more change public attitudes and improve public transport, says the OECD. Economic incentives may be needed to encourage a shift to cleaner modes of transport.

“Pressures on the environment from the energy, agricultural and transport sectors remain comparatively high,” Christian Averous, co-author of the report, told edie. “It is very important for the government to integrate environmental concerns into these sectors, both through institution- and market-based mechanisms – making sure the price is right.” The construction industry also has much to gain in improving building efficiency, says Averous.

While the UK is one of the few countries to have made considerable progress in cutting down carbon dioxide emissions, further reductions may be more difficult to achieve with a future “dash for gas” and the challenge of greening transport, says Averous. The climate change levy also needs to be reviewed and possibly extended into a broader-based tax on greenhouse gas emissions, he concludes.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher welcomed the OECD report as a realistic assessment of the UK’s standing. “The areas of criticism in the report are mostly familiar ones – such as waste, diffuse pollution, enforcement and the condition of protected areas. We acknowledge that we still have much work to do in these areas and continue to focus on how we can overcome the problems we face,” he said.

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