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The UK Environment Bill – transforming the UK's approach to climate change and environmental risks

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After years of delays, the UK is set to finally place the Environment Bill on the statute book later this year.

The Government has publicised the Bill as a landmark piece of legislation to tackle the biggest environmental problems of our time. So what should we know about the Bill?

1.        Improving environmental governance

The Bill contains measures for strengthening the UK's environmental governance framework, including:

  • Binding targets for environmental protection: the Government must set targets for air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction by 31 October 2022, with a deadline for achievement of 2037.
  • An "environmental improvement plan": this requirement is already met by the Government's A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment which sets out policy plans for achieving clean air and water, mitigating the harm caused by climate change and other environmental hazards, managing exposure to chemicals and minimising waste.

2.        Establishing the Office of Environmental Protection

The Bill establishes the independent Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) who will:

  • Monitor environmental decision-making: the OEP will scrutinise the Government's progress in enacting its environmental improvement plan and meeting the binding targets. It also has a duty to monitor and advise on the implementation of environmental law in general.
  • Investigate and enforce breaches of environmental law by public authorities: the OEP will have the power to carry out investigations, either on its own initiative or in response to complaints, if public authorities may have committed "serious failures" of environmental law. The OEP can make recommendations, issue notices and apply for the judicial or statutory review of a decision by a public authority.

3.        Resource-efficiency requirements on businesses

To move the UK away from a "take, make, use, throw" system to a circular economic model, where resources can remain in use for longer, the Bill enables the Government to introduce requirements on businesses in respect of:

  • Product information: requiring businesses to label their products with information about their expected life, and users' ability to upgrade, reuse and recycle them.
  • Product manufacturing: to ban non-reusable or recyclable products, as well as introduce charges on single-use plastic items (akin to the current charges on plastic bags).
  • Waste management: to prevent the export of polluting plastic waste to developing countries, track waste electronically, and introduce responsibilities for producers in respect of waste prevention and redistribution.

4.        Improving air and water quality

The Bill includes provisions to address air pollution and deliver sustainable water resources, including powers for local authorities to impose fines for the emission of smoke in smoke control areas and, powers to recall motor vehicles that do not meet environmental standards and a statutory duty on water companies to produce long-term water resource management plans.

5.        Restoring nature and biodiversity

The Bill sets out provisions to restore and enhance nature and green spaces, with the aim of protecting wildlife and preserving the role of nature in managing carbon emissions and maintaining public health. 

Key measures include the integration of a biodiversity net gain requirement of 10% for developers into the planning system, and an expansion of the existing duty on public authorities to conserve biodiversity when exercising their functions, to require them to "conserve and enhance" biodiversity. 

6.        Amending chemicals regulation post-Brexit

The Bill enables the Government to amend the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) Regulation, as well as the accompanying REACH enforcement regulations. This will enable the Government to have the flexibility to keep up-to-date retained EU laws that govern the manufacture, marketing and use of chemicals.

When will the Environment Bill come into force?

The Bill was last debated in Parliament in January this year, but is unlikely to return to the House of Commons until the Spring. The Bill is expected to come into force by Autumn 2021.

Comment

The Environment Bill does not so much introduce sweeping changes to UK environment regulation, as lay the groundwork for changes to come. Many of the headline provisions – including environmental target-setting, and product information and manufacturing requirements – will require the passing of secondary legislation before we start to see what new obligations on public authorities and businesses will look like in practice.

Critics of the Bill have argued that the deadlines for setting environmental targets, let alone meeting them, are too long – that requiring the introduction of those targets in 20 months' time, and compliance after 15 years, fails to reflect the urgency of the climate crisis. However, the content of the regulations made under the powers in the Bill will determine its impact – there is no reason in principle why the 2037 targets cannot be ambitious, with interim reporting requirements creating pressure on the Government to introduce the measures necessary to meet these.

Another criticism is that the enforcement powers of the OEP will be limited. Unlike other UK regulators, the OEP will have no fining powers, for example. We would argue that simply lacking such direct powers does not mean that the OEP will be toothless – it will still be able to apply to court for judicial review remedies, and require changes to conduct through notices and recommendations. More important will be how a serious failure of environmental law is defined, which will be the trigger for most of the OEP's enforcement powers.

The next few months while the Bill is finalised, and the years that follow while the Government, devolved administrations and local authorities exercise the powers it creates, will be crucial as we anticipate the impacts of the legislation.

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