Will The Environment Act prove useful for our furry friends? Credit: Carrie Borden via Unsplash.

It’s been seven months since the landmark Environment Act was passed. Here’s a rundown of the legislation and the impact it may, or may not, have on nature in the UK. 

On November 9 2021, the Environment Act got the royal stamp of approval, becoming the first dedicated environmental legislation passed in the UK for nearly 30 years. The Act is the first time England has set legally-binding targets for nature’s recovery. These will be announced on June 27 when the Act’s consultation closes.

The aim of the Act

The Act lists government initiatives aiming to clean up the country’s air, restore natural habitats, increase biodiversity, reduce waste and make better use of resources. It also includes a new legally-binding target on species abundance, which will attempt to halt the decline of British species like the hedgehog, red squirrel and water vole by 2030. 

Cracking down on water companies that discharge sewage into rivers, waterways and coastlines is another focus of the legislation, though there was a fight for it to be included. According to Environment Agency data in 2021, water companies released raw sewage into England’s waters for a total of 2.7m hours, as they are permitted to do under current law during times of heavy rainfall.

They purposely and legally polluted the environment.

Yet 265 Tory MPs voted with the government to reject an attempt by the House of Lords to toughen up the approach to discharging sewage in the Environment Act. Following a public outcry, six amendments were made and passed regarding the Bill, placing legal responsibilities on water companies to ensure safe discharge of sewage. 

The Act also enables the county to clamp down on illegal deforestation and protect rainforests through a package of measures that will ensure greater traceability and sustainability in the UK’s supply chains.

There is also a focus on transitioning to a more circular economy, i.e., reducing waste to the bare minimum by incentivising recycling and encouraging sustainable packaging to stop the export of polluting plastic waste to developing countries. 

What has the reaction been?

Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England said, the Act had many positives.

“Ambitious targets backed by a range of new policies to meet them, means that we are in a strong position to shift up a gear – not only protecting what’s left but also to recover some of what has been lost.” 

In what was meant as a hopeful statement, the words ‘what’s left’ cannot help but ring in the mind. What is left?  

Unfortunately, not much. “UK nature is already in dire straits,” a spokesperson for the national charity the Wildlife Trusts said.

“This country is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. More than 1 in 10 species in England are on the brink of extinction, 41% of species are in decline, 97% of lowland meadows have disappeared, as have 80% of heathlands, and rivers are in deep trouble too.“  

This situation has not been met with a correlating sense of urgency, according to the Wildlife Trusts, who called the Act ‘unambitious’. While they applaud the government for passing this much needed legislation, they tell us the follow through is what will matter most.

“In order to restore nature at the scale and speed required, you’ve got to see action on the ground, you’ve got to see a greater urgency, you’ve got to see a greater ambition”, said spokesperson Harry Shepherd. 

Is it realistic?

The trusts’ greatest criticism is directed at the timeframe for the government’s plan. Spanning 28 years, the Act proposes to halve the waste that ends up at landfill or incineration by 2042, make significant improvements in the condition of marine protected areas by the same year, and increase total tree cover by 3% by 2050.

Another aim is to increase biodiversity by 10% by 2042 ‘based on 2030 levels’. This means we can effectively sink the ship right down to ‘Ground Zero’ by 2030, explains the Wildlife Trusts, and then only have a 10% increase from that figure by 2042. Effectively, this leaves us with less wildlife in 2042 than we have now. 

The level of biodiversity in 2042 also depends on the success of another of the Act’s promises; to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030.

Given the name ‘30 By 30’ by the government who loves slogans a little too much, delivering on this alliterative project may make them regret the memorable title. The government claims 26% of land is already protected for nature by National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). While this figure is not untrue, not all protected land protects wildlife.  

According to Wildlife and Countryside Link, the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, just 7% of land is designated as a SSSI, of which less than 40% are in favourable condition. In fact, some of the sites are in such poor condition due to bad management, they’re having a negative impact on the species they’re supposed to be providing for. The coalition concluded only 3% of land could reliably be said to be protected in a way that protects nature.

That’s not to say we can’t reach the 30% target and protect more land, the Wildlife Trusts reassures us, it simply means more work to ensure ‘protected’ also means protecting nature. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declined to comment. 

While the environment has long been a pertinent issue, the passing of this legislation has been overshadowed and under reported.

Matthew Mokhefi-Ashton, Social and Political Sciences lecturer at Nottingham Trent University said, “Everything that’s going on at the moment such as the cost-of-living crisis and Ukraine, have sucked the oxygen out of the room. A lot of people who are interested and involved in environmental matters, while this legislation is of concern to them, their focus is absolutely elsewhere now.” 

He added, “The government can pass the legislation but really saving the environment costs money and that money has to come from cuts or tax hikes, neither of which are very popular and could put the next election in jeopardy.

“While people want to save the environment, if it’s going to cost the public more, and therefore cost the Conservatives, they’re not going to do it.” 

Despite all its criticisms, the Environment Act seems to be a step in the right direction. Just how far that step will take us is yet to be seen. What could be world-leading legislation that will shape the future of this country’s landscape, could also end up being just a plaster on a gaping wound.