Despite successive laws which have tried to protect nature, there has been no letup in its long-term decline. As last year’s State of Nature report revealed, one in seven species in the UK are at risk of extinction and 58% of species are in decline – so the Government’s new Environment Bill must set a new, world-leading standard if we are to reverse these trends.
For years, The Wildlife Trusts have called for ambitious laws which do just that – laws that not only protect wildlife and existing wild places but deliver action that kickstarts nature’s recovery and puts back what we have already lost.
We might not get another Bill like this for decades and the Government should not miss this unique opportunity to put nature’s recovery on a strong statutory footing.
The Government says that the Bill will “better protect our natural environment for generations to come” and is a response to the growing public demand and clear scientific case for a step-change in environmental protection and recovery. The Bill does contain some welcome new measures – it allows legally binding targets for biodiversity, water, air quality, and waste to be set, establishes a new environmental watchdog to hold government to account, and introduces new laws which will help deliver a national Nature Recovery Network to reconnect habitats and give nature space to be revived.
However, to achieve a world-leading standard, we believe the Bill should be strengthened in some important areas. We might not get another Bill like this for decades and the Government should not miss this unique opportunity to put nature’s recovery on a strong statutory footing.
The Environment Bill requires the government to set long-term, legally binding targets for improving the natural environment. Long-term targets are hugely important, as action to secure nature’s recovery is needed over a longer period than just one government’s lifetime.
But this part of the Bill needs to be strengthened in a few key areas.
Firstly, the targets must be informed by the best independent, expert advice, not left up to Ministers to decide who to seek advice from when setting targets. This ‘comply or explain’ model is similar to the advisory role that the Committee on Climate Change provides for climate targets and must be in the Bill.
Secondly, in the face of the continued, long-term decline of nature, the target setting process needs to ensure ambitious targets. Currently, the government could theoretically set only one, unambitious target each in four areas – air quality, water, biodiversity, and resources and waste. We need greater specificity on the scope of the targets as well as a clear objective that they achieve an environment that is recovering, healthy, diverse and resilient for the benefit of people and wildlife.
Lastly, the Bill must ensure that the targets drive meaningful action on the ground to help nature to recover. Currently, there is no obligation to start taking action to meet the target straight away, so real action could be delayed until it is too late. The Bill must ensure that the policies are in place to meet these targets and interim targets are made legally binding to keep the government on track.
By strengthening the Environment Bill in these areas, these new targets could help hold governments to account and provide the much-needed direction and ambition to spur action.