Boris Johnson may have long since retired and the youth climate strikers at least doubled in age by the time the government is required to meet its environmental obligations in 2037.
Boris Johnson's government has given itself till 2037 to meet any future legally-binding targets to improve air and water quality, tackle plastic pollution, and restore nature.
The draft environment bill, published earlier this week, states that targets for these four priority areas must be published by 31 October 2022. But the date for actually meeting these targets must then be set “no less than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set” - giving the government till 2037 at the earliest to meet the targets.
Interim targets will be set, but these would not be set out until 2022, and these will not be legally binding, according to the bill. This means that even if Johnson were to serve three full terms as Prime Minister, he would never have to achieve any of the targets being set out by his own government.
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, which exposed the loophole, said: “What good are legally-binding targets if they can’t be enforced for almost two decades? Boris Johnson may have long since retired and the youth climate strikers at least doubled in age by the time the government is required to meet its environmental obligations in 2037.”
The campaign group pointed to the government’s track record of missing environmental targets, including the fact that it had abandoned goals to conserve 50 percent of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), by area, by 2020.
In addition, the government’s new regulatory body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), will not be able to fine the government for any compliance failures, and its chair will be appointed by the secretary of state, raising fears over its independence.
A spokesperson for the environment department (DEFRA) said that it needed to give businesses and the public sufficient time to make changes to reach the goals set in the bill. Long-term targets were used in other sectors, such as planning and housing, he pointed out.
In addition, the government will be required to consider progress towards the targets every five years, and set new five-yearly interim targets towards them, he said. What he didn't say was that polluting corporations and their various lobby groups would also have significant time to sway public opinion and convince politicians to undermine the new targets regime.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.