‘Weak and unambitious’: Green groups criticise Defra’s legally binding environment targets

The Government is legally required to publish an Environmental Improvement Plan in January 2023 that will set out how these targets will be met

Defra failed to meet a statutory deadline of 31 October to confirm targets for nature that are included under the Environment Bill, despite the Bill receiving Royal Assent in November 2021.

Following “extensive consultation”, Defra has now released new targets that are all aimed at leaving the environment in a better state for future generations.

Under the Environment Act, the targets require the Government to halt the decline in species population by 2030 and increase populations by at least 10% beyond current levels by 2042. It also commits to restoring water bodies to their natural state, boosting nature recovery and woodland cover to 16.5% of total land area in England by 2050 as well as halving waste per person that is sent to residual treatment by 2042.

The new targets also include vague and unspecified plans to cut exposure to pollutants in the air and restore 70% of designated features in our Marine Protected Areas to a favourable condition by 2042, with the rest in a recovering condition.

Overall the strategy will build into targets to restore or create more than 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat, which will also help the UK to meet its international commitment to protect 30% of its land and ocean by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.

The Government is legally required to publish an Environmental Improvement Plan in January 2023 that will set out how these targets will be met.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey, speaking at the UN Convention in Montreal, said: “We are committed to leaving our natural world in a better state for future generations, and today we are laying the foundations that will help deliver on this commitment.

“These targets are ambitious and will be challenging to achieve – but they will drive our efforts to restore our natural environment, protect our much-loved landscapes and green spaces and marine environment, as well as help tackle climate change.”

Defra updated the draft Policy Statement on Environmental Principles in May 2022. One of the listed principles, the integration principle, states that policymakers should seek opportunities to embed environmental protection and restoration in all fields of policy that impact nature. Another, the prevention principle, states that all Government policy should aim to prevent environmental harm at the source.

Reaction to these principles has been lukewarm at best, with many major green groups expressing concern that they will result in a downgrading of ambitions and actions. 

Earlier this year, the UK’s post-Brexit watchdog urged the Government to revisit its approach to environmental targets, warning that “comprehensive” statutory targets need to be introduced to help protect and restore the environment. It has since called for an environmental non-regression safeguard to be added to the ongoing review of hundreds of retained EU laws as well as calling for the deadline to be extended beyond 2023.

Industry reaction

Commenting on the new targets, Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said: “The bottleneck at DEFRA appears to be easing, and I welcome the Environment Secretary’s publication of these proposed environment targets. Our Committee is yet to scrutinise the proposed targets and interim targets and how they will be met, and the Commons and Lords must approve them before they come into force. Today’s publication nevertheless marks a further milestone on the road towards environmental recovery mapped out in last year’s Environment Act.

“The Government’s renewed commitment to halting the decline in species abundance by 2030 is welcome, but requires swift action to ensure the target is achieved. As the Committee recommended in its report on biodiversity and ecosystems, clear interim targets are required. At the time, we called for the targets to include species distribution, extinction risk, habitat extent and condition.

“For environmental targets to be successful, they must be achievable yet ambitious. This must also require a cross-Government effort: in the same way individual departments need to get behind net zero, they must also be committed to improving nature and the environment. The climate crisis and ecological crisis are twin challenges and tackling them together in a serious and committed way is key.”

The Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive Craig Bennett said: “We were told that these targets were delayed to take into account the unprecedented public response to the consultation – but despite 99% of respondents calling for greater ambition to reverse nature’s decline, we’ve ended up with the same low ambition targets that were consulted on. What’s more, the Government has failed to set targets on two of the most pressing issues – river health and protected sites for nature.

“Not a single river, lake, or estuary in England is in good health – with sewage, agricultural and chemical pollution continuing to pour into our waterways. And the Government’s latest data on the state of nature shows that the condition of our most important places for wildlife is continuing to decline year on year. Failing to set targets to tackle these fundamental issues defies public opinion. Without a target to improve our protected sites, the Government has little hope of achieving its international commitment to protect 30% of land for nature by 2030.

“The target to halt nature’s decline by the end of the decade is welcome but this should be coupled with a genuine target for nature’s recovery. Simply aiming for marginally more nature in 20 years’ time than our current, extremely depleted state is far from world-leading and an abdication of our responsibility to future generations.”

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) land analyst Matt Williams said: “New national targets show the UK is planning to turn global nature goals, currently being negotiated in Canada, into action back home. But some may question how serious the Government is, given there’s no target whatsoever for the health of nature reserves – some of the most important areas for storing carbon and providing a home for wildlife. A target for increasing the number of trees – crucial for storing carbon – looks less ambitious than many had hoped, and like it will let England off the hook, relying on greater effort from the other UK nations.

“In recent years for climate change we’ve seen legally binding targets send a strong signal and stimulate private investment in renewable energy and low-carbon transport. The hope will be that these targets for nature do the same, stimulating private investment in restoring forests, hedgerows, and peatlands that can absorb carbon and help tackle climate change, including to support farmers to do so.”

Clear Air Fund’s executive director Jane Burston said: “It is hugely disappointing that the government has set a weak and unambitious target for reducing deadly air pollution. The research is clear that achieving cleaner air by 2030 can be done in a cost-effective way that boosts the economy. By delaying this target by 10 years, between 260,000 and 380,000 more lives could be lost to air pollution. This weaker target would also mean the loss of a potential ‘clean air dividend’ to the UK economy of £1.6bn each year or more than £12bn over 10 years, according to recent CBI analysis. We must see greater ambition from the government if we’re to meet this challenge, protect people’s health, deliver on Net Zero and strengthen the economy.”

Wildlife and Countryside Link’s chief executive Richard Benwell said: “It’s good to see Government catch up with its legal obligations and publish Environment Act targets before the end of COP15. Environment Act targets are more than political aspirations. They are meant to provide legal certainty, clarity for business, and shared purpose across Government. So a package without targets for protected sites and overall water quality is a job half done. Ministers are in Montreal now promising to protect 30% of the land and sea for nature by 2030. To publish targets at home without a commitment to improve the condition of our most important wildlife sites is a world away from that rhetoric.

“In January, Defra is legally required to review whether the targets would deliver a significant environmental improvement. The 2030 target to halt the decline of species is a real positive, but without protected sites and water quality targets, the package does not live up to that test. DEFRA should commit to consult and fill these gaps without delay.”

The Aldersgate Group’s executive director Nick Molho said: “Today’s publication of the UK’s long-term targets is a significant milestone in the journey to reverse the decline of the natural environment. The publication of the targets during the COP15 summit in Montreal should empower the UK negotiation team to push for ambitious progress at a time when global progress on nature and biodiversity restoration is critical. The introduction of the species abundance targets should be particularly welcome in this regard.”
“While the publication of the targets is a significant step forward, work remains to be done to strengthen the targets over time and plug some important gaps. In particular, the water quality targets could be made more effective by being more outcomes focused and the Government should keep open the possibility of increasing ambition on the species abundance targets. The overall framework should also be strengthened over time by introducing a few key missing targets include a national apex target to improve water quality, a resource productivity target to improve resource efficiency across the economy and a target to improve the conditions of Sites of Special Scientific Interest to support the country’s biodiversity ambitions.”

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