Martino Ginepro, Ecologist at Ground Control discusses his thoughts surrounding the Environmental Bill.
The Bill clearly sets out the overarching environmental principles that will underpin existing and future environmental law in a post-Brexit scenario, which, at a glance, mirror those currently behind EU environmental legislation. The Bill then focuses on the areas of air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction.
Whether it will be an effective instrument to mitigate the effects of a changing climate depends on the quality of the targets (to be laid before Parliament by October 2022) in each of these areas and on the efficacy with which they will be implemented and enforced. Claims have been made that the Bill will lead a “green transformation” – however, it must be remembered that the EU Directives already set very high standards when compared to the rest of the world, and that they have, until now, been the backbone of our domestic environmental legislation.
On the subject of air quality, for instance, the Bill has the opportunity to include a legally binding commitment to meet World Health Organization guideline levels by 2030 at the latest – to date, it is not clear whether it will embrace them.
However, it could be argued that a more holistic and drastic approach is required to significantly reduce emissions in urban areas. The Bill also hasn’t yet exploited the opportunity to introduce instruments in primary legislation to afford legal protection to mature trees that are outside the scope of Tree Preservation Orders or Conservation Areas, given the key role that trees play in delivering air quality.
Moving on to enforcement – when the UK leaves the EU, the EU bodies that monitor and enforce our environmental laws will be replaced by the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP). Widespread concerns across the environmental sector have been raised with regard to the OEP’s intrinsic dependence on the Secretary of State, which will appoint members in key executive roles and be responsible for funding it. Questions as to the efficacy of the body in ensuring the government’s adherence to targets appear legitimate.
The watchdog will have the ability to stop projects and hold authorities in contempt of court if they breach environmental standards, but it won’t be able to fine the government if it fails to uphold its commitments. Some argue that fines are a very powerful instrument which can instigate action more rapidly and effectively than a judicial review.
The Bill also states that the OEP will have to define how it will avoid overlap with the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in the exercise of its function. However, it must be noted that the CCC lacks enforcement powers, and what the overlap suggested in the Bill may consist of is unclear.
On a more praise-worthy note, the Bill introduces the mandating of biodiversity net gain being in the context of development, and makes provision for long-term conservation covenants aimed to support Local Nature Recovery Strategies across England and, ultimately, the restoration of functional ecological networks at a landscape-scale. This is undoubtedly a very exciting prospect in the ecological sector, given the opportunities that it creates to deliver high-quality mitigation and compensation strategies.
Biodiversity net gain sites will have to be registered and maintained for at least 30 years. Stricter requirements will be introduced for the application of the mitigation hierarchy and for developers to provide local authorities with a pre and post-development assessment of biodiversity – that is, to acquire qualitative and quantitative baseline data. However, an exception is made for certain types of development as the Secretary of State “may specify”.
Furthermore, the efficacy of the biodiversity metrics utilised to determine a site’s ecological value has been questioned by professionals in the industry, as well as how there is scope (under these metrics) to tweak data in order to deliver a preferred picture. This is not to play down the indisputable progress that this part of the Bill may introduce, but to say that much focus will be needed to ensure its correct interpretation and implementation.
To answer the initial question, the problems behind the climate crisis are systemic: the pace at which our economy pursues development is such that there is little scope for nature to recover and for GHG emissions to be drastically reduced. The focus on efficiency and productivity in farming and agriculture also undermines efforts towards more sustainable land management practices. In the face of a growing population, there is still much emphasis on delivering energy in line with current demand, as opposed to instigating a change in consumers’ behaviours.
The principle of “sustainable development” is often misinterpreted, as economic gains tend to take precedence over environmental considerations, thus failing to foresee social and environmental costs which are inevitably transferred to future generations. Therefore, despite the opportunities that the Environmental Bill may present to address some key environmental issues, it will unlikely be an answer to our climate crisis.