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How should DEFRA catch up on its breach of the Environment Act targets duty?

Richard Benwell, CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link, calls for haste and higher ambition for protected site condition and water quality in the Environment Act targets framework.

November 2022

On 31 October, the Government missed its legal deadline to set targets for air, water, waste and wildlife under the Environment Act 2021. Today, alongside Greener UK and the Healthy Air Coalition, we’ve submitted a formal complaint to the Office for Environmental Protection about this breach of the law.

The Government is now rightly racing to catch up. The new Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey, has shown some welcome determination to clear the decks at DEFRA and catch up on delays. Timing is certainly important. As well as a signal of the Government’s commitment to its environmental agenda, there are risks of knock-on effects for environmental action if the targets delay is not swiftly rectified.

But a simple “get it out the door” approach will not suffice. There were a number of major flaws in the targets framework proposed by DEFRA in its consultation, particularly around the condition of protected sites and the overall quality of the freshwater environment.

If the final targets are the same or weaker than the consultation proposals, then the framework will not provide the statutory direction needed to drive environmental improvement. To pass this critical test case of commitment to the Environment Act, the Government must publish a targets framework that fills the gaps left in the consultation proposals.

The importance of timing

There are practical and political implications of the missed targets deadline.

In December, the Convention on Biological Diversity will meet to consider a new global deal for nature’s recovery. Domestic law to underpin international promises has been a significant missing ingredient in previous multilateral deals. Agreeing a UK targets framework in time for the global negotiations would be a powerful display of intent by Rishi Sunak’s government.

On the other hand, if the date slips further, a domino run of delays could follow. For example, the Government is also obliged under Section 10 of the Environment Act to publish a new Environmental Improvement Plan. This is intended to set out the government’s programme of implementation of the environmental targets, as well as its broader environmental agenda. It must include interim targets, as well as practical measures to achieve significant environmental improvement.

The first Environmental Improvement Plan (the 25 Year Environment Plan) was a great narrative about nature, but it was by no means an implementation plan. It did not set out current trajectories of environmental decline, nor model the policy interventions needed to turn round decline. To be credible, this Environmental Improvement Plan must be very different, laying out scientific scenarios for delivery of the targets—how much each policy will contribute to bending the curve of environmental decline. It will be hard to do this credibly if the targets themselves are not published quickly.

And, of course, as well as legal deadlines there are real-world implications of delay. The Government has just seven years to meet the State of Nature target to halt the decline of biodiversity. Setting the statutory targets provides an important signal of policy certainty that can drive the scale and ambition of action needed to succeed.

Stronger targets

While timing is important, rushing out a weak framework would be counterproductive.

There were a number of significant weaknesses in the Government’s consultation proposals which, together, would mean that the targets fall short of the promise to pass on nature in better condition. Link’s full consultation response is here, but headlines include:

  • There is no target for the condition of designated nature sites. Today, much of the UK’s SSSI network (the last fragments of habitat that are most important for nature) are languishing in sub-standard condition, with just 38% in favourable status.
  • There is no target for the overall condition of the freshwater environment. The targets framework is intended to drive long-term improvement, spanning Parliaments to ensure that political ups and downs don’t derail environmental action. The final deadline for the current target for rivers and streams is 2027.
  • There is no target for improving resource efficiency. This means that, even if proposed targets for reducing residual waste are reached, our extractive economy can continue to over-exploit Earth’s resources.
  • The long-term biodiversity target is weak. A 10% improvement in species abundance over 2030 levels by 2042 could mean that the Government meets its target even though wildlife populations end up lower in twenty years’ time than they are today.

These gaps are extremely significant. The Government’s chances of meeting its headline commitment to halt the decline of biodiversity by 2030 will be vanishing if it does not commit to improve the status of habitats, or the quality of the freshwater environment.

The consultation quandary

To make good on the targets delay, the Government should bring forward an enhanced framework of targets, including targets for habitat condition and the overall quality of freshwater. There was surely ample evidence in the response to the initial proposals that these targets are needed.

If, however, the Government insists that it cannot publish these additional targets without further consultation, then formal consultations on specific new targets proposals should be published alongside the new package of targets—including a SSSI condition target, and an overall target for freshwater that can be translated into individual catchment targets.

The Environment Act allows targets to be set at any time, so the Government should set out plans for additional habitat and water targets and commit to have them on the statute book within six months.

World leaders and the global environment movement will be focused on nature targets in the month ahead. At the moment, if they zoom in on the UK, they will find a government in breach of its own legal duty to set targets for nature. If the Government wishes to regain the front foot, and show some resolve to meet its ambitious nature promises, the targets framework should be published without delay—but only if the gaps can be filled, with strong new commitments that include targets for protected habitats and the freshwater environment.

The formal complaint and list of signatories can be found here. UK Health Alliance on Climate Change & Whale and Dolphin Conservation have also signed in support of the letter. 

Richard Benwell is CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link.

Follow: @WCL_News and @RSBenwell