Environment Bill: Noble aims but will it deliver?

Tim Champney, MD, Future Climate Info

By Legal Futures’ Associate Future Climate Info

A new environmental watchdog, measures to improve air quality and protect the climate – just some of the eye-catching features of the new Environment Bill that was launched in the Queen’s Speech this week. Tim Champney, our Managing Director, summarises the key points and gives his thoughts on the prospects for future environmental protections.

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers has declared the new Environment Bill as “a landmark….that leads a green transformation that will help our country to thrive.” It is designed to place environmental ambition and accountability more clearly than ever at the heart of Government.”

But with Brexit still unresolved and a general election imminent, how much of this could realistically be implemented? What has actually been published as specific actions rather than lofty aims? Rather like the rest of the Queen’s Speech ahead of a likely election it has left many wondering whether it was anything more than a shopping list of ideals.

The new Bill aims to enshrine environmental principles in law and set out a framework for improvements to air and water quality, as well as measure to cut plastic pollution.

A new watchdog, the Office of Environmental Protection, will be based in Bristol. It will have the power to scrutinise laws, investigate complaints and take enforcement action against public authorities to uphold standards.

The regulator’s powers will cover climate change legislation and hold the Government to account on the legal commitment to cut greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050, working alongside the existing advisory Committee on Climate Change.

The main aims of the bill are:

  • Improve air quality – including legally-binding targets to reduce fine particulate matter, PM2.5, and forcing manufacturers to recall vehicles when they do not meet the relevant environmental standards.
  • Restore and enhance nature – a ‘biodiversity net gain’ scheme to ensure new houses developments protect and enhance nature. A Nature Recovery Network will establish Local Nature Recovery Strategies and giving communities a greater say in the protection of local trees.
  • Transform waste management – ensuring producers take responsibility for the waste they create, introducing a consistent approach to recycling, tackling waste crime, introducing bottle deposit return schemes and more effective litter enforcement.
  • Protect water resources – by increasing sustainable water management through securing long-term, resilient water and wastewater services in the face of a changing climate.

While the Bill applies only to England, more than half of its measures – such as those designed to drive up recycling rates – are designed to apply across the UK.

Will Watchdog have Teeth?

Environmentalists have welcomed several of the proposals, especially on restoring nature. But they say on other green issues ministers are going backwards – and they’re anxious to see details of the new policies.

There are concerns that by stepping out of existing, stringent EU rules, such as facing heavy fines for breaching air quality standards, will a new watchdog really hold the government to account.

Under EU rules, for instance, the government has faced heavy fines for failing to meet air quality standards. But Brexit is set to remove the stick that came with these rules.  Ministers say the watchdog won’t be able to fine the government if it fails to uphold its commitments – but will ensure it is held to account, with the ability to stop projects and hold authorities in contempt of court if they breach environmental standards.

But campaigners fear that the new watchdog could be muzzled, tamed and stripped of funding. And the Government has form on this one. Professor Alex Stevens, a senior member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), recently resigned over the alleged “political vetting” of panel members by the government.

Air Pollution: Shift to Local Targets

We need to see more details on policy, which have yet to be released.  Air Pollution is a clear case in point. Many parts of the UK breach World Health Organization standards for fine pollution airborne particles. The Government has promised an “ambitious, legally binding” target to reduce small particulate matter, known as PM2.5.

But so far, it hasn’t stated what the standards would be, or when they would apply.

The WHO annual mean guideline for PM2.5 is 10 μg/m3. Over 24 hours, they have a guideline of 25 μg/m3.

It is encouraging that the Government has said that there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure for humans. They will also bring forward powers for the government to mandate recalls of vehicles when they do not meet relevant legal emission standards.

Previously, it was forced to improve nitrogen oxides pollution under the threat of fines from the EU.  In a briefing document, the Government says one of the purposes of the Environment Bill will be to increase powers to tackle air pollution from sources such as coal and wood-burning at a local council level. It could be argued that this is a way of avoiding national targets and makes it harder to hold the government  to account, for example, by cases brought by organisations like Client Earth.

Big Moves on Waste but Climate Commitment Slipping

On waste and recycling management, the package as it stands is set to have a major impact on the sector. There are remaining commitments from Mrs May’s government launched in July 2018 on the EU’s “circular economy” directive, which would see producers pay 80% of the costs for disposing of the packaging that wraps their goods.

Ministers are also preparing to introduce charges on single-use plastics, similar to the plastic bag tax. There are also plans to introduce a Deposit Return System and measures for a more consistent approach to what materials are collected from the household.

While the welcome and rapid expansion of offshore wind power infrastructure investment is welcome, at the same time the government seems to be slipping away from its legally binding targets on the emissions that are over-heating the climate.

There are still commitments to aviation expansion, fracking, North Sea drilling, building roads that experts say will generate traffic and cutting support for home insulation and solar.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has rebuked the Government that that they’re not moving fast enough. In response, the Government says that the new environmental watchdog will have more power over ministers than the CCC.

There are some big steps forward with this Bill, such as legally binding targets, tackling nature decline and a new watchdog to enforce climate law. But for me, the big question is: how can legally binding targets be strong and effective without any remedies (fines)? And without a legal commitment to maintain existing EU standards, can we be really sure that no single regulations will be weakened after Brexit?

There was no mention anywhere I could see about pollution control and land contamination. One can only presume that again there will be more detail on how the new watchdog will work with the Environment Agency on effective regime control and how this is managed through enforcement, permitting, remediation strategy approvals, etc.

There is a concern that the Office of Environmental Protection will not be independent enough. The idea of “government fining government” isn’t going to wash, I think and claims that these protections will be “world leading” need to be viewed as rhetorical with the proof being in its delivery.


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