The government has delayed the long-awaited environment bill, the biggest shake-up of green regulation in decades which redraws rules following the UK’s departure from the EU, provoking fury from campaigners who said it would harm action on air pollution and water quality, as well as other key issues.
Ministers said the delay, which will mean the flagship bill is unlikely to pass before the autumn, was necessary because dealing with the Covid-19 crisis left too little parliamentary time for debate. Trying to continue with the original timetable would have risked the bill falling and having to return to square one of the parliamentary process.
Rebecca Pow, minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “We remain fully committed to the environment bill as a key part of delivering the government’s manifesto commitment to create the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. Carrying over the bill to the next session [of parliament] does not diminish our ambition for our environment in any way.”
She promised that work on the bill would continue, including establishing the Office for Environmental Protection, a watchdog for the UK’s environmental standards that campaigners fear will not be sufficiently independent or powerful under the current bill.
Campaigners said this was the third time the bill, work on which began in July 2018, had been severely delayed.
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said: “Time and time again the government tells us that ‘urgent action’ is needed to restore nature, that it will ‘build back greener’ and that we can’t afford to ‘dither and delay’. What then is it playing at by delaying the most important piece of environmental legislation for decades?”
Green groups warned that the delay could damage the UK’s credibility at key international environmental summits this year, including a biodiversity summit and the UN climate summit Cop26, to be hosted in Glasgow this November.
Ruth Chambers of Greener UK said: “The UK government has consistently claimed environmental leadership, but after four years of delays we are still without crucial laws to restore nature and tackle climate change. Ministers must now use this extra time to improve their plans around upholding green laws.”
The bill sets out a framework by which ministers can impose new targets on vital issues such as air pollution and water quality, waste, resource use and biodiversity, which were previously regulated under EU directives.
But in the bill, as it stands, these targets would be long-term, risking leaving efforts to cut pollution in limbo in the interim, and campaigners and many businesses want to see legally binding short-term targets introduced, that would enforce high standards and action on pollution in the next few years.
The bill also includes measures to ensure consumers in the UK no longer contribute to the destruction of vast swaths of forested land overseas, through new rules intended to stop the import of goods to the UK from areas of illegally deforested land. UK businesses will need to show that the products they source that could come from at-risk areas – wood, but also soy, palm oil, beef, leather and other key commodities – are from supply chains free from deforestation. Breaches of the rules will incur fines.
Campaigners want the bill to include a target date by when deforestation must be eradicated from all UK supply chains.
Kate Norgrove, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “Nature is in freefall, and our climate is in crisis. Protecting and restoring precious forests like the Amazon is critical to tackling this global emergency … WWF is urging our leaders to improve the environment bill by adopting a new legally binding target to make UK supply chains deforestation free by 2023. Only then can we hold our heads high as hosts of the global [Cop26] climate conference in Glasgow later this year.”
The bill will also contain measures to improve the UK’s environment, which campaigners want strengthened further. Harry Bowell, director of land and nature at the National Trust, said that ministers’ proposal to protect 30% of the UK’s land for nature by 2030 should be enshrined in law in the environment bill.
“This will bring huge benefits to people by creating more green space and wetlands close to where they live,” he said. “It will also help to restore ailing wildlife and habitats. The government should put this target into law, creating certainty for businesses looking to invest and to help deliver its long-term environmental goals. We, and many others, want to help the government make the nation richer in nature, and legally binding targets can help to increase everyone’s ambition.”
A new environment watchdog has been promised, after concerns were raised that leaving the EU would weaken environmental regulations. Green groups fear that, as currently envisaged, the watchdog will lack teeth.
Bowell added: “The bill could be further strengthened … by granting the new watchdog full independence and enforcement powers.”
Friends of the Earth said the environment bill as it stood represented a reduction in protections. Kierra Box, campaigner at the charity, said: “The government has taken every opportunity to weaken everything about this bill: from giving ministers the power to guide our supposedly independent environmental watchdog, to defending sweeping loopholes that allow huge swaths of government to discount the environment when making decisions. The star of this ‘world-leading’ bill is now a requirement that UK companies simply obey the law on deforestation when producing goods abroad, which shows how low the bar has been set.”
She also called for legally binding targets on plastic pollution in the bill, and tougher restrictions on single-use plastics.