The Government’s proposals for legally-binding targets for air, water, waste and wildlife—required under the Environment Act 2021—have been published today.
The Government has gone beyond the statutory minimum of a single target in each area, and DEFRA has clearly fought a persuasive case with other Government Departments to set a wide range of objectives. But, overall, the proposals do not aim high enough on ambition, scope, and measurability to ensure that the Government meets its headline target of halting nature’s decline by 2030.
In some areas, meeting the targets could leave the environment in a worse state in 20 years’ time than it is today. That is wholly at odds with the Government’s frequently-repeated promise to pass on nature in better condition. The proposals must be improved in the eight week consultation before the targets are set in law in October 2022.
We welcome the Government’s focus on the target to halt the decline of biodiversity by 2030 as an “apex target”. This target, agreed after a campaign for a State of Nature target backed by over 200,000 people, should become a daily consideration in decision-making across Government—a “net zero for nature”.
However, the long-term target for biodiversity is simply to increase species abundance by 10% by 2042 compared with 2030 levels. Even assuming that biodiversity declines at a slower rate over the next eight years before levelling off in 2030, an increase of 10% from that low bar will almost certainly mean that wildlife populations are lower in twenty years’ time than they are today.
Of course, we must recognise that halting and reversing nature’s decline is no simple feat; if the Government succeeds, then it will have bucked a century-long trend of environmental losses. For the past decade, Ministers have promised to pass on nature in better condition for the next generation. The 25 Year Environment Plan made that promise its central commitment. A legal target that would leave England less biodiverse in 20 years’ time than it is today surely falls short.
Another significant gap in the framework compared with the promises of the 25 Year Plan is the absence of a target for the condition of protected sites. Only 38% of England’s SSSIs are in good condition. The 25 Year Plan promised to reach 75% by 2042, but that target was non-statutory and non-binding, so it should be moved over into the Environment Act framework. A target for the condition of our most important nature sites is critical to meeting the overall biodiversity goal.
The water targets will provide a trickle down effect from some key polluting industries, but what we need is a torrent of action across the whole of the water environment. The targets miss out major sources of pollution from water and sewage companies, they depend on unreliable methods of measurement, and they set no ambition at all for the overall quality of our rivers. That is completely out of step with demand for healthier rivers.
Under the EU’s Water Framework Directive, there is a legal target for the overall condition of our rivers and streams, driving action on pollution reduction. But that target runs out in 2027.
The Government’s proposals, astonishingly, include no target for the overall ecological condition of our rivers and streams. This means that there will be no legal accountability under the Environment Act for whether or not the Government is successful in cleaning up our freshwater environment for people and nature.
Instead, the proposals include targets for particular pollutants and sectors. This is a good idea in principle, but it should be the means of implementing a target for overall condition, not a replacement for it. Otherwise, limited targets to reduce pollution from these particular sectors could be met but overall water quality could remain low, or worsen.
Furthermore, the actual proposals for sector targets are riddled with holes.
For water companies, the proposal is to require phosphorus loadings from treated wastewater to be reduced by 80% by 2037 against a 2020 baseline. That is important. But it completely misses out nitrogen pollution from wastewater. It also misses out pollution that occurs before the end of the wastewater treatment process, such as overflows.
The water proposals also rely far too heavily on modelled measurements and self-reporting. Modern monitoring technology would allow an ambitious Government to keep track of real pollutant loads in every stretch of a river at intervals of a few minutes, allowing scientists to track peaks and deal with real problems.
Instead, the Government is proposing to measure targets for farmers and water companies on the basis of modelled improvements in pollution, informed by the uptake of mitigation measures. In other words, if a farmer reports that they are taking approved measures to reduce pollution, then the Government will assume a real-world result. This appears to leave the door open for the Government to claim success, while the actual quality of our rivers fails to reach good ecological health.
The wider framework
There are further weaknesses in the wider framework. For example,
The consultation is open for eight weeks. Then the Government will bring forward its final targets proposals as statutory instruments in Parliament. Unlike bills, Statutory Instruments cannot be amended by Parliamentarians, only approved or rejected, so Parliament will be unable to strengthen the final proposals.
That makes these next eight weeks of consultation extremely important. These targets are intended to be the legal foundation for nature’s recovery, so they must be realistic but ambitious enough to turn round nature’s decline.
The Government made a great step forward in agreeing to the campaign for a State of Nature target. Now it must strengthen its proposals for the wider targets framework to match that excellent ambition.
Richard Benwell is CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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