After calling for an environment bill for years, I am not going to complain when one appears in the Queen’s Speech. It is vital that we address the serious environmental challenges facing our country including air and water quality, soil health, plastic pollution and – most fundamentally – the climate emergency.
So I welcome the fact that the government is introducing an Environment Bill, even though with a general election likely in the next few months, the Queen’s Speech felt more like a Conservative Party political broadcast than a realistic programme for government.
There are things to welcome in the bill, including the prospect of legally-binding environmental targets for biodiversity, air and water quality. But targets, however ambitious, cannot disguise the fact that leaving the European Union will weaken environmental protections in this country, whatever ministers claim, and targets are only meaningful if there are the policies to achieve them, and effective bodies to enforce them.
Take air quality. The government boasts of the UK’s “world-class clean air strategy”, which will be the launch-pad for further cleaning up our air. Yet this strategy has been criticised for ignoring pollution from road transport and failing to make it mandatory to protect public health. The government has lost no fewer than three court cases over illegal and harmful levels of air pollution that breach of EU air quality standards. If this is the government’s definition of world class, then we are in deep trouble.
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world with more than half of our species in decline. Ministers accept that urgent action is needed to halt this biodiversity loss, though after nine years in power, one wonders why it’s taken them so long to wake up to this.
Placing an obligation on local authorities around biodiversity is meaningless unless it comes with funding for local councils whose budgets have been decimated by years of Tory austerity. When that is combined with the cuts imposed on the Environment Agency (a 25 per cent cut in staff from 2010-2016), Natural England (its budget nearly halved since it was founded 13 years ago), the question is where are the experienced staff who will make this happen?
Setting up bodies with new powers but without the funding to exercise those powers effectively is an old trick. My deep suspicion is that the new regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), will go the same way.
One thing is clear. If the OEP is to be truly effective, it must have more independence and real teeth. It must also be able to scrutinise all policy and law, not just the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and environmental policy. The government needs to face the (for it) uncomfortable truth that it’s not Defra which poses the biggest threat to the environment, it is every government department, most of all the Treasury.
It splashes cash on destructive developments like road-building and continues to subsidise fossil fuel industries while cutting funding for vital bodies like Natural England. The remit of the OEP must extend to taxation and spending if it is to have real impact on environmental protection. Because the real damage is caused by the absurd belief that we can continue to pursue endless GDP growth on a planet of finite resources. The Treasury’s current economic model and obsession with growth at all costs is ruining our planet and our lives.
Nothing in this bill makes up for the fact that the biggest immediate threat to the environment is our departure from the EU. The threats are most severe if we crash out with no deal, but even the deals being discussed now pose enormous and unacceptable environmental risks, most of all from the slash and burn of environmental protections in the pursuit of trade deals with countries like the US.
Ministers claim that leaving the EU gives us a great opportunity to improve the natural environment. This is utter nonsense and, as environmentalists, we must do more to call it out. No EU environmental regulation has prevented the government from going further in safeguarding air or water quality, or our nature. It hasn’t chosen to do so. And the noises coming from parts of Whitehall suggest that some ministers can’t wait to get rid of all regulation. As Boris Johnson said in the Commons: “Let’s get Brexit done to regulate differently.”
When the bill allows the secretary of state to weaken or abandon most of the targets, it can only reinforce the suspicion that the government will quickly drop environmental protections when convenient, in a race to the bottom, and out of desperation for environment-trashing trade deals with Trump’s America. The bill must be amended to ensure that the UK at least keeps pace with the EU on environmental standards, and preferably aims higher.
Setting targets is one thing, delivering on them is another. We have a climate target of net zero by 2050 (far too late to make a real impact on the climate emergency) yet little sense of urgency in reaching it. The environment bill promises lots of targets. Can we trust a Boris Johnson-led government to pursue them? I don’t think so.