The Environment Bill sets distant timelines on air pollution targets

Reactions to the Environment Bill

The Environment Bill has finally been announced – but does it go far enough? The consensus seems to be no…
17 October 2019 , Katie Coyne

The long-awaited Environment Bill published on Tuesday (15 October) was welcomed but the message was still that the Government ‘must do more’.

The Bill details environmental governance post-Brexit and covers air quality, plastics pollution, waste management, water stewardship, and nature and green spaces.

It was announced in the Queen’s speech, and the environment secretary Theresa Villiers later laid out the details.

It creates the new public body – the Office for Environmental Protection – around much debate has raged over whether it will have enough ‘teeth’. Villiers has said it will be able to take the Government to court, although the OEP will comprise just 120 people.

The Bill will require the Government to set legally-binding, long-term environmental – including emissions – targets.

While applying to England only, ‘more than half’ of the measures in the Bill are designed to be applied across the UK with the consent of the devolved administrations.

Here are some of the reactions from around the campaigning and political landscape.

CIEH

CIEH policy manager Tamara Sandoul said: "We are encouraged by the Government's commitment to set legally binding air pollution targets, alongside plans to establish a stronger environmental regulator.

“However, these targets should be in line with WHO guidelines to protect public health and the environmental regulator should be given effective powers and resources to take action.

“Our air should be cleaned up as quickly as possible rather than working to distant timelines. We will be studying the content of this Bill closely to ensure that that the legislation is effective to protect public health in the fastest time possible."

“However, local authorities tasked with driving local initiatives for cleaner air must be given adequate resources for local air quality monitoring and projects."

Client Earth

Client Earth clean air lawyer Katie Nield said: “The Government’s commitment to set a new air quality target is far from ground-breaking. To show real ambition to protect people’s health, the Bill needs to include a legally binding commitment to meet World Health Organization guideline levels by 2030 at the latest – which it has not done. The evidence is clear so it’s deeply concerning that the Government has failed to do this.”

“It is also worrying that the rules for what it must do to deliver this new target are much weaker than those in existing clean air laws. Currently, where pollution targets are missed ministers are required to do everything they can to achieve legal limits in the shortest time possible. These requirements are conspicuous by their absence in today’s Bill, which instead risks us going backwards.”

“We have been breathing harmful levels of pollution for too long now and as it stands this Bill is another missed opportunity for people’s right to breathe clean air.”

Friends of the Earth (FoE)

FoE head of political affairs Dave Timms said: “Despite some improvements from previous proposals, it’s extremely disappointing that the Environment Bill won't protect existing environmental safeguards from being watered down - something ministers have repeatedly promised.

“We’re facing a climate emergency – and while the new environmental watchdog will at least have power to hold government to account on climate change, its independence is still not guaranteed. And it’s speed of progress hardly suggests the blue lights are being switched on.

“It’s encouraging to see headline commitments on issues such as plastics, air pollution and natural restoration, but it remains to be seen if the frameworks set out in this ‘flagship’ bill will have the clout to fulfil the government’s ‘world leading’ ambitions.

“The climate crisis is the biggest threat we face - the government’s commitment to tackling it will be judged on its action, not words.”

Greenpeace UK

Greenpeace UK head of politics Rebecca Newsom 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 Government talks about the “urgent action” needed to tackle the mammoth challenges that our environment faces. If it truly believes this, then that action needs to happen straight away, not the 18 year window it has given itself.”

The Wildlife Trusts

The Wildlife Trusts are also concerned about the delay in the bill and the independence and powers of the OEP. Head of land use planning and ecological networks Sue Young said: “We’re really pleased to see a commitment to creating local nature recovery strategies for the whole of England to support a Nature Recovery Network.

“It’s very positive to hear that these will identify opportunity areas which show where action needs to be taken so that nature can recover.

“However, we are disappointed that major national infrastructure projects will not be subject to net gain – this means that the new legal requirement to make developers actively improve nature will not apply to the most damaging schemes.

“While we welcome the clauses strengthening the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act – saying all public bodies must have regard to conservation and enhancement of biodiversity – we believe that this should also apply to national government when they decide on the planning of national infrastructure projects such as HS2.

“Additionally, there have been few guarantees on the independence, resourcing or the strong enforcement powers of the new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection.

“This must change if the Government’s proposals are to effectively ensure the protection of the natural environment and meet the ambition needed to turn nature’s recovery from an aspiration to a reality.”

The trust wants to see a Nature Recovery Network of sites created, stitched together across the country to help nature’s resilience to climate change. Nature reserves on their own are not enough for wildlife’s recovery, and they are often surrounded by urban development or intensive agriculture. This could be funded by Environmental Land Management payments and ‘net gain’ contributions.

Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)

CPRE deputy chief executive Tom Fyans said: “It’s great to see the government include powers to introduce a deposit return scheme in the Environment Bill but as the results of our nation-wide litter-pick demonstrate, in order to be an effective deterrent to the high volumes of waste polluting our natural environment, it must cover all materials of all sizes.

“To boost recycling rates for all drinks containers - cans, glass and plastic bottles, cartons and pouches - the only option is for the government to introduce an ‘all-in’ system. The industries that would be required to pay for the Deposit Return Scheme continue to try to limit its scope but we urge the government to prioritise the needs of the environment and society over corporate vested interests.”

The Labour Party

Shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said: "Boris Johnson is threatening our environment with reckless new trade agreements that would undercut Britain's environmental standards.

"The Government must legislate to ensure that the UK won't fall behind the EU on environmental standards and that the Office for Environmental Protection is fully independent and resourced.

"The Government's air quality plans have already been ruled unlawful multiple times. Tory cuts have stopped government agencies from protecting our environment and left councils struggling to tackle fly tipping and littering."

Local Government Association (LGA)

LGA environment spokesman David Renard said: “We will work with the Government to ensure that the Environment Bill and Office for Environmental Protection is effective in addressing the concerns of communities.

“Councils want to lead the environmental improvement agenda, but need to be empowered to do so. National climate change expectations and air quality targets are unlikely to be met unless councils are given long-term funding, devolved powers and easier access to complex government funding pots.

“A joint national taskforce led by councils would harness the critical partnership between local and national government to coordinate and drive climate change action for the benefit of communities, the country and the planet.

“To help councils increase recycling rates, manufacturers need to use packaging that is fully and easily recyclable and government needs to ensure producers pay the full cost of recycling packaging. More importantly, manufacturers need to reduce waste at the point of source to stop unnecessary and unrecyclable material becoming an issue in the first place.

“Clearer labelling and increased charges for hard-to-recycle products would help councils, manufacturers and the public be part of the recycling revolution that is urgently needed.”

Surrey County Council

Mike Goodman, cabinet member for environment and waste, said: "Surrey County Council declared a climate emergency earlier this year and are taking a number of steps to make our open spaces pollution free, increase recycling, and work closely with partners and residents to tackle the causes of climate change.

“We are planting over a million trees, one for each Surrey resident, we are investing in the long-term protection of communities at risk of flooding, and we have committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.

"Furthermore, we are bringing people, communities, and organisations together to find solutions in the steadfast belief that partnership provides the key to unlocking our combined strengths.”

The council is currently working on a plan to make the county’s buses more environmentally friendly. It also runs Surrey's Greener Future design challenge which invites anyone in Surrey to contribute to how they could enact change in their community to tackle climate change.

Goodman added: "The measures proposed in the Environment Bill will give us the ability to further supercharge our efforts to address sources of air pollution, restore and enhance nature, and transform the way we manage our waste."

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