The UK Environment Act is a new piece of legislation that is designed to provide a framework to improve our natural environment and help us meet international commitments. The current picture for nature globally is bleak, with biodiversity under threat, and species disappearing at the fastest rate in Earth’s history as a result of habitat loss, pollution, and deforestation. Nature is intrinsically linked to our survival, and it is estimated that half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature, with ecosystem services providing £33tn a year to the global economy. However, we are using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths, and such unsustainable resource use is leaving a trail of devastation, and leading to an environmental crisis which poses an existential threat to humanity.
International agreements such as the Convention of Biological Diversity have long recognised the need to protect nature, but this has now evolved into an urgent need to reverse the damage that has been done. The UK has commitments under international agreements to halt and reverse species loss, end deforestation, and protect 30% of its land and sea areas by 2030. In order to address these challenges, the Environment Act was brought into law in 2021, but what is included and how will it be implemented?
The UK has one of the most depleted natural environments in the world, having lost vast areas of its natural habitats and 50% of its native biodiversity. The UK also has a significantly lower level of forest cover than most other countries, at only 13%, and has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows and 90% of its wetlands. The species declines in the UK are alarming and continuing, with an average population crash of 60% in some of our most important wildlife species. With this in mind we have more work to do than many other nations to restore our wild spaces and the government has been working on legislation and frameworks to drive the restoration process.
The challenges to finding the space for restoring biodiversity are multifaceted and require maintaining food production, changing public attitudes to green spaces, and incentivising farmers and private landowners to prioritise nature recovery as well as providing funding. Legislation was required to drive the process of nature protection and restoration, and the government drew up the Environment Bill to create a legal framework that required action on key environmental issues. There were delays as the Environment Bill passed through Parliament, partly related to the Coronavirus pandemic and it took a couple of years for it to be passed into law, which was finally achieved at the end of 2021.
The Environment Act was introduced following the publication of the 25 Year Environment Plan by the Conservative government in 2018. This plan was designed to set ambitions for environmental protection following our exit from the European Union, and the Environment Act is the ensuing legislation that will form the basis for enacting the plan.
The Environment Act is a unifying piece of legislation that draws together the governmental response to several challenges. It is described as ‘world leading’ by the government itself and as the most ambitious environmental programme of any country. If it translates into real world change then it could make a significant contribution to the drive to halt and reverse nature loss in the UK and potentially provide a blueprint for other nations to follow.
The main aims of the legislation fall under several categories by setting long term environmental targets. The categories include improving waste and recycling, providing clean air, facilitating nature recovery, reducing deforestation, and improving water quality. The latter has been the biggest source of contention and one of the reasons that the bill was delayed going through Parliament.
A new authority, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), has been created to oversee the implementation of the new legislation and ensure adherence by government and public organisations. The government will keep track of targets by producing Environmental Improvement Plans (of which the 25 Year Environment Plan is one) at five yearly intervals, and other intermediary papers, which the OEP will then assess for progress. The first report by the OEP concluded that despite high ambitions, the government was falling short on action in its aims, and highlighted that more progress needs to be made before the publication of the next Environmental Improvement Plan in 2023.
Waste and recycling
In order to improve waste and recycling, producers will be made to pay for 100% of waste disposal costs, and there will be charges for single use plastics. There will be a deposit scheme for single use drinks containers, and there will be restrictions or a ban on exporting recycling to non-OECD countries. Greater consistency in recycling collections and electronic tracking of waste will help to improve accountability of waste disposal and eliminate fly tipping. Labelling on products to show recyclability and durability can be introduced to contribute towards the circularity of resources.
To reduce air pollution, local authorities will be made responsible for improving air quality and long-term targets for improvements will be set. These include targets on reducing ambient PM2.5 concentrations, the most harmful pollution to human health.
The principle goal for nature is to halt or reverse species declines by 2030, which will be achieved partly through a requirement for construction projects to demonstrate a 10% biodiversity net gain. A Nature Recovery Network will be set up through the implementation of Local Nature Recovery Strategies, expanding local action into national results. Protected areas are expected to be expanded and strategies will be drawn up to ensure that these are managed effectively, which is not currently happening. Site and species conservation strategies will assist in implementing habitat improvement projects and conservation covenants will protect restored habitat for the future. Larger UK businesses will be prohibited from using commodities associated with large-scale deforestation, and a due diligence system will be implemented to monitor resources used in the supply chain for their impact on nature.
Water pollution will be more closely monitored and regulated, with water companies required to show a progressive reduction in sewage outflow events and greater cooperation between themselves. More close regulations relating to planning, water extraction, and licensing will also improve water quality and minimise environmental impacts.
The Environment Act will be supported by a number of regulatory frameworks that are currently being developed. The Office of Environmental Protection will provide independent oversight of the implementation of the Environment Act and report on progress against other governmental targets. Their first report, published in May 2022, sounded an alarm at the lack of progress so far on the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and urged more concerted efforts, particularly in relation to water pollution. The government publishes annual reports on the 25 year plan, and the latest one released in July 2022 painted a grim picture of continuing species declines with only 5 of the 20 nature indicators showing improvement. The government will streamline the process, however, and bring all the related initiatives under the umbrella of the Environment Act, which should improve the focus of future action. Fly tipping and waste have also increased in recent years, although there was positive news on climate change initiatives, with emissions dropping. There has also been a 13.9% increase in people visiting natural spaces between 2013 and 2018, which should climb even higher following the pandemic.
The 10% biodiversity net gain requirement in development projects will be overseen and monitored by Local Planning Authorities, using the biodiversity metric developed by DEFRA. The process assesses the baseline habitat types at the site, and then uses a point scoring system to grade the improvement in habitat type, with later assessment to ensure that the projected habitat is of sufficiently high quality. There is a requirement to ensure that the new habitat is maintained and managed for 30 years to ensure longevity of biodiversity increases.
Biodiversity should also be increased as part of the new Environmental Land Management schemes that will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. The ELM schemes will incentivise landowners to make agricultural practices more sustainable by reducing chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, taking care of soil health, increasing biodiversity, and undertaking habitat restoration schemes at small and large scale.
With the introduction of the Environment Act into law, the UK government now has the legal structure to implement some of their national and international environmental and nature restoration policies. This piece of legislation could be critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems and wildlife, and contribute to efforts to tackle climate change but it remains to be seen if these foundations are sufficient to incentivise and deliver on large scale nature restoration and protection.