HM Parliament was due to report on the Environment Bill 2019-2021, which has now been extended into December. This important Bill is a vital piece of legislation set out to meet the environmental requirements of the Brexit Withdrawal Bill.

The government has hailed it as a “Landmark Bill” and the Prime Minister regards it as the “huge star in our legislative programme”. This is a strong statement of political intent. There are many welcome measures in the Bill. There are some measures where technical improvements will help to set the UK on the right track, and others where significant amendments will be necessary to bring the focus to where it needs to be.

This lengthy 350-page Bill encompasses an overwhelming expanse of issues including (but by no means limited to) the following:

  • Environmental principles
  • 25-year environment plan
  • Air pollution/quality (outdoor only)
  • A framework to set legally binding targets
  • The creation of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)
  • Waste and resource efficiency measures to include proposed charges on single use plastics, deposit-based recycling, bottle return schemes and producer responsibility clauses
  • Water quality and marine environmental matters
  • Biodiversity gain, local nature recovery strategies and nature clauses
  • Tree felling and planting
  • REACH (the protection for the public and the environment from hazardous chemicals)

Our response to the call for written evidence can be found here: Environment Bill 2020 Carbonxgen Written Evidence

A summary of four key areas of the Bill is provided below:

OEP (Office for Environmental Protection)
For the OEP to be a world-leading watchdog the government has pledged to create, its’ independence and powers must be strengthened, through greater parliamentary oversight of OEP board appointments and within its budget. In the courts, The Upper Tribunal must be empowered to grant meaningful, dissuasive, and effective remedies including, where appropriate, significant financial penalties. The issues of flooding and town & country planning (among others) are specifically excluded from the reach of the OEP. It is difficult to see how this can be justified on environmental grounds.

Non-regression (compared with existing EU frameworks)
A straightforward and substantive commitment to non-regression of environmental law must be included in this flagship Bill if the government is to avoid weaker legislation compared with that which we leave behind upon exiting the EU. At present, the Bill is a weaker set of rules and regulations compared to those we have worked towards under the EU legislation, specifically in the areas of scope, targets, air quality, eliminating plastic pollution, species abundance and diversity, species habitat extent and condition, and a measure of human-caused extinctions. Regressive changes are most often embedded in the small print of trade agreements, secondary legislation, or detailed policies. The scope of this provision should, therefore, be extended to cover international treaties, secondary legislation, policy, and guidance.

Except for reserved matters, the Bill currently applies to England and, for some aspects, to Wales. We strongly believe that environmental governance should be developed at the UK level. Since environmental issues do not follow borders, effective environmental guardianship requires collaboration across those borders, and this in turn offers opportunities for economies of scale, efficiency of compliance, data sharing, better use of resources etc. Different regimes in the devolved administrations can also place an unreasonable burden on businesses.

Indoor Air Quality
Most of us spend 90% of our lives indoors. While outdoor air quality/pollution is a serious issue in the UK, we feel that the Bill misses a good opportunity to address the pressing issue of indoor air quality. Failure to redress this will outweigh any progress on outdoor air quality. Air pollution has a devastating impact on the UK population, shortening lives, causing early deaths and ill health. It is a bigger global killer than smoking and costs the UK economy over £20 Billion a year. Indoor air quality targets should be included for specific pollutants (PM2.5 and below; CO2 levels; ozone; VOCs and NOx etc). This is of course much more of a priority in our post-Covid world.

It is our view that while important steps have been considered, the Bill does not achieve what has been promised: gold standard legislation, showing global leadership for responding to the environmental crisis, and a world-leading watchdog.

The Committee is now scheduled to report by Tuesday 1 December 2020 and we eagerly await the findings of the most recent round of consultation.

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