We will be watching for the critical clauses needed for nature’s recovery.
Environmental legislation to improve air and water quality, tackle plastic pollution, restore habitats, all overseen by an independent watchdog were announced yesterday in the Queen’s speech.
The speech returns to Parliament key pieces of legislation on agriculture, fisheries and trade that were dropped due to the new government being formed. Campaigners hope that the new versions will be stronger than those that preceded them.
On fisheries, they want to see binding commitments not to fish above scientifically recommended sustainable levels and measures to tackle fishing-related deaths of protected species, while for farming, many want certainty for funding and guidance for farmers and land managers to enable them to invest in the natural world.
Import standards were also needed to safeguard farmers from imports produced to low environmental and welfare standards, they said.
Draft plans for the environmental watchdog were published earlier this year, but came under fire for being too weak. Under current arrangements, the European Commission can fine governments for not complying with environmental law, but the watchdog will not have this function.
Many campaigners had been concerned that climate change had not been included in the watchdog’s role. But the government today confirmed that its remit would include all climate change legislation, including the target to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 54 environmental charities, said that the legally-binding targets were “a fantastic step forward”, and could usher in a new era of environmental improvement, but only if the targets deliver a major dose of ambition, backed by credible plans.
“We will be watching for the critical clauses needed for nature’s recovery. The agriculture bill must guarantee sufficient funding for greener farming for at least a decade. The fisheries bill must include legal limits on catches to restore our seas. The environment bill must match aspirational targets with ambitious action,” he said.
New measures to improve animal welfare are also being brought forward, including tougher sentences for crimes of animal cruelty and a requirement for government departments to give full regard to animal sentience and welfare in all policy. Imports of trophy hunting will be banned, in a victory for campaigners.
However, Friends of the Earth said that the trade bill had been “completely watered down” since it was last debated by Parliament, which was of “huge concern” given that the UK was days away from leaving the EU.
Sue Hayman, the Labour shadow secretary of state for DEFRA, said: "Boris Johnson is threatening our environment with reckless new trade agreements that would undercut Britain’s environmental standards.
"The government must legislate to ensure that the UK won’t fall behind the EU on environmental standards and that the Office for Environmental Protection is fully independent and resourced.
"The government’s air quality plans have already been ruled unlawful multiple times. Tory cuts have stopped government agencies from protecting our environment and left councils struggling to tackle fly tipping and littering."
Dave Timms, Head of Political Affairs at Friends of the Earth said: “Despite some improvements from previous proposals, it’s extremely disappointing that the Environment Bill won't protect existing environmental safeguards from being watered down - something ministers have repeatedly promised.
“We’re facing a climate emergency – and while the new environmental watchdog will at least have power to hold government to account on climate change, its independence is still not guaranteed. And it’s speed of progress hardly suggests the blue lights are being switched on.
“It’s encouraging to see headline commitments on issues such as plastics, air pollution and natural restoration, but it remains to be seen if the frameworks set out in this ‘flagship’ bill will have the clout to fulfil the government’s ‘world leading’ ambitions.
“The climate crisis is the biggest threat we face - the government’s commitment to tackling it will be judged on its action, not words.”
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76. Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.