The Environment Bill returns – but can it reverse the ‘truly terrifying’ decline of nature?

We are one of the most nature depleted countries on the planet. If the Government is serious about its ambition to finally turn the tide on nature’s decline, action must start at home.

At the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity earlier this year the Prime Minister signed the Leaders' Pledge for Nature, committing the Government to action to address the nature crisis.

The pledge was signed by 77 political leaders across the globe and aims to step up collective global ambition to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.

Speaking at the summit, the Prime Minister warned: “The natural life that so enriches our planet today is declining at a pace that is truly terrifying […] We are on the brink of a world in which the orang-utan and the black rhino can be found not in the jungles of Borneo or the savannahs of Africa, but confined to the pages of a history book.”

But the Prime Minister doesn’t need to look across the globe for examples of the truly terrifying decline of nature.

One of the most nature depleted countries on the planet

Here in the UK, one in seven species are at risk of extinction and 58% are in decline. On our very doorstep, the numbers of iconic UK species such as the hedgehog and water vole are in freefall and face joining other threatened species in the history books. When compared internationally, the UK is in the bottom 10% in terms of how much biodiversity still survives here.

We are one of the most nature depleted countries on the planet.

If the Government is serious about its ambition to finally turn the tide on nature’s decline, action must start at home.

That’s why it’s welcome to see the Environment Bill make its return to Parliament this week after a lengthy delay. 

The Government says that the Bill will help to deliver on their manifesto commitment to delivering the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.

But to achieve this world-leading standard, changes to the Bill are needed.

What is needed?

A strong targets framework

To drive improvements in nature, we firstly need a strong targets framework to kickstart action for its recovery. While it’s welcome that the Bill allows legally binding targets for biodiversity, water, air quality, and waste to be set, it must ensure the environmental improvement plans meet these targets and interim targets are also made legally binding to keep the government on track.

A headline target to reverse nature's decline

Alongside this, by committing to a “headline target” to reverse nature’s decline, the Government has the chance to flaunt their environmental credentials on the world stage at the Convention on Biological Diversity next year and drive up global ambition. This is an opportunity they shouldn’t miss.

Policies put in place to deliver real action

To accompany these long-term targets, the Bill must then put in place the policies needed to deliver real action on the ground. Key to this will be the creation of Local Nature Recovery Strategies, which will help deliver a national Nature Recovery Network to reconnect habitats and create more space for nature.

By requiring relevant authorities to map key habitats which already exist and identify opportunity areas where action needs to be taken so nature can recover, these strategies will be an essential tool in restoring the natural environment. But to be truly effective, the requirement to use the strategies in planning and spending decisions needs to be strengthened.

As the Government puts forward the most radical changes to the planning system since the Second World War, Local Nature Recovery Strategies and the Nature Recovery Network must ensure wildlife recovery and people’s easy access to nature are at the heart of these reforms. They can’t be just another strategy left on the shelf.

A worrying development

Lastly, to keep the Government in check on its environmental commitments, the Bill establishes a new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). This is very welcome – nature’s recovery will be impossible without a body to enforce protections and check the government is delivering on its promises.

But to do this successfully, the OEP needs to be fully independent from government.

Worryingly, an amendment the Government has recently proposed undermines this, giving them the power to advise the new OEP on how it will be able to enforce environmental law.

This should be removed. The independence of the OEP should instead be strengthened by giving Parliament a stronger role in the appointments process and enshrining a multi-year budget in law.

After a hiatus of over 6 months, the return of the Environment Bill is very welcome news. Just as the Climate Change Act marked a transformation in tackling the climate crisis over a decade ago, the Environment Bill now has the chance to do the same for the nature crisis.

If the Government is willing to strengthen it, the Bill will be a landmark moment for nature. A world-leading Environment Bill could not only ramp up action at home to save the hedgehog and water voles, but inspire action across the globe for the orang-utan and black rhino too.