This new law must set clear targets for the recovery of the natural world that we all depend upon. There is no time to waste.
The government’s environment bill must have clear and binding targets, and be backed up by strong enforcement, campaigners have said.
Prime minister Teresa May announced the government’s intention to draw up the first environment bill in the UK since 1995 on Wednesday. She did not provide many details, except to say that it would include action on air pollution, and “some of the opportunities that we think will be available to us after we leave the European Union.”
She added it would not just be an issue for the environment department (DEFRA). “It encompasses a number of departments, both in the action needed and in the positive impact that it will have. The Department of Health, for example, will benefit, as individuals benefit from cleaner air.”
The government has been repeatedly criticised and taken to court for failing to reduce air pollution, levels of which are above those allowed by EU law.
The legislation meets calls by NGOs to enshrine the government’s 25-year environment plan, published earlier this year, into law. The plan promised action on waste, the natural environment, air pollution and improving health through access to nature.
The government has also recently pledged to create a watchdog, to replace the oversight of the European Commission after Brexit. It has been heavily criticised for falling short of the EU’s legal systems, as it would only be able to issue legal proceedings against the government, not other public bodies.
NGOs want the new bill to deliver this watchdog, and also enshrine and strengthen EU protections in law, and set measurable short and long-term targets for nature’s recovery and a healthy environment.
Bills covering agriculture and fisheries have already been announced by the government. NGOs want these to include binding targets backed up with funding.
Tony Juniper, executive director at WWF, said: “Our country is increasingly bereft of wildlife, our rivers polluted, there is more and more plastic in the sea and an ever-increasing area of green space covered with concrete. This new law must set clear targets for the recovery of the natural world that we all depend upon. There is no time to waste.”
Martin Harper, director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, pointed to the organisation’s State of Nature report from 2016, which ranked the UK as the 28th most nature-depleted country out of 218 countries it assessed.
He said: “As the UK seeks to leave the European Union, we urgently need all our governments to not only maintain the current levels of nature protection but to raise the bar and allow our wildlife to recover.”
Marian Spain, chief executive of Plantlife, said: “Brexit gives the government a major chance to hit the reset button on policies that have been damaging nature in the UK for years. The time for action is now. We have seen floral diversity crash in our magnificent but vanishing meadows, a staggering 97% of which have been lost since the 1930s.”
However, Tom Burke, chairman of environmental think tank E3G, who has advised both government ministers and big business on environmental issues, tweeted: “Why would anyone trust a government that has crippled the planning system, destroyed the independence of environmental regulators, cut investment in energy efficiency and delayed the deployment of renewables with an environment bill?”
Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth was also cautious. He told the BBC: “This could be an act that really moves forward protection of nature. But we don’t know what the bill will include, what will be its foundations and when it will be delivered.”
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.