Environmental concerns, including flooding, air quality, biodiversity loss and resource use, have a continued high profile. Recent debate has also focused on governance of environmental standards after Brexit. The following five areas are likely to lead the parliamentary scrutiny agenda.
Many of the UK’s environmental requirements stem from EU legislation. They are monitored and enforced by EU institutions that can ultimately fine Member States in breach of EU laws.
While existing targets will continue in UK law following Brexit, the monitoring and enforcement roles of EU institutions are likely to be lost. In the absence of a replacement, this would lead to what commentators have called an “environmental governance gap.”
The Environment Bill 2019–20 contained proposals to fill this gap. An independent non-departmental body, the Office for Environmental Protection, would have a monitoring role, receive complaints, and have a range of enforcement powers. The bill passed second reading unopposed but fell at dissolution.
The next Parliament will need to scrutinise any governance proposals. Aligned with this is a debate on what any new environmental standards should look like and whether they should diverge from those set by the EU.
A 2019 Intergovernmental Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated a million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades. It concluded that “we are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life.” Writing about climate change and biodiversity loss, the body’s Chair Sir Robert Watson, stated: “we either solve both or we solve neither.”
In October 2020, the Convention on Biological Diversity will set a new international framework to address biodiversity loss. In advance, HM Treasury commissioned a Review of the Economics of Biodiversity. It will assess the risks of global biodiversity loss, and “identify actions to enhance biodiversity and deliver economic prosperity” in a similar way to the ground-breaking 2006 Stern Review on climate change.
The 25 Year Environment Plan, published under the May Government, committed to a ‘natural capital approach‘, and improving biodiversity by using land more sustainably and creating new wildlife habitats. This was followed by several funding and policy announcements. However, the UK Biodiversity Indicators 2019 showed short and long-term decline in bird and insect populations; and long-term public sector spending on biodiversity (PDF 1.87 MB) has decreased.
The difficulties are reflected in the UK’s report on its 2020 Aichi Biodiversity targets. Progress on many is too slow, with protecting and restoring ecosystems providing a particular challenge.
“Some targets have proved particularly challenging despite the positive progress that has been made (e.g. #8 on pollution, #10 on vulnerable ecosystems, #12 on conservation status of species, and #15 on restoring degraded ecosystems)”
Joint Nature Conservation Committee, United Kingdom’s 6th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity 2019, March 2019.
Resources and waste
The 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy for England set ambitions for a more circular economy; to “become a world leader in using resources efficiently and reducing the amount of waste we create as a society.”
Several consultations followed, with a particular focus on reducing avoidable plastic waste. This included reform of the packaging producer responsibility scheme, a plastics tax, a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, and a ban on specified single-use plastics. These all require further legislation to implement.
Attention is also focused on recycling rates. The UK recycled 45.7% of household waste in 2017 and needs to meet an EU Directive target of at least 50% by 2020. Commentators such as Greenpeace have questioned the UK’s ability to meet this target.
Air quality is an ongoing and growing concern in Parliament and beyond. There is increasing understanding about how vulnerable groups are at a disproportionately high risk of health problems from poor air quality.
The Clean Air Strategy 2019, published under the May Government, accepted that if the UK is to meet emission targets on specific air pollutants then further action and/or legislation is required. These pollutants included:
- Ammonia; the majority of emissions stem from agricultural practices
- Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5); the largest primary contributor is from burning wood and coal in domestic open fires and solid fuel stoves
Attention is also likely to remain focused on the UK’s exceedances of nitrogen dioxide emissions – for which EU infraction proceedings against the UK (and other EU countries) have already begun.
In 2019, flooding once again captured national attention. The independent Committee on Climate Change has identified, “large increases in flood risk” as one of the “greatest direct climate change-related threats,” facing the UK.
Central Government provides funding and an overarching strategy for managing flood risk in England. However, local problems require local solutions, and communities will need different approaches to managing flood risk alongside competing demands on land for housing and agriculture. The 25 Year Environment Plan emphasised sustainable drainage systems, property resilience and natural flood management measures such as planting trees.
A new Parliament will need to consider both strategy and funding in the long term. The Environment Agency estimated in 2019 that an average annual investment of £1 billion will be necessary up to 2065. By the end of the last Parliament, the Government was committed to £2.6 billion in capital spending between 2015 and 2021.
The Johnson Government planned a policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion by the end of 2019, and the Environment Agency consulted on updating the risk management strategy by spring 2020.
- Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, HM Treasury
- Commons Library analysis of the Environment Bill 2019-2020, House of Commons Library
Insights for the new Parliament
This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.