The U.K. Environment Bill: A Pending Opportunity for Significant Environmental Governance

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

On January 31, the United Kingdom’s long and tumultuous departure from the European Union concluded with Brexit Day. This monumental, and by some, staunchly condemned, process ushered in a breadth of legal impacts, especially in regards to national environmental law and policy. EU directives previously served as the foundation for a large contingency of environmental standards, environmental protection regimes, conservation schemes, and enforcement and compliance in the U.K. Additional implications of Brexit include those at the intersection of agriculture and the environment, business and trade implications, sustainability efforts, chemical regulation, renewable energy development, the Paris Accord and other climate goals, and a variety of multinational treaties and directives. In short, the impacts on environmental governance were, and are, enormous and far-reaching.

Tower bridge in LondonYet, environmental law in the U.K. largely remains at a standstill. Although formulation of the proposed Environment Bill began in July 2018, the legislation remains stagnant to date. Reasoning for the delay has been officially pinned on the coronavirus pandemic, and unofficially on bureaucracy as well as the many voices—proponents and critics alike—who call for a range of changes to be incorporated. While it is widely understood that time is of the essence in regards to environmental law and climate action, the Environment Bill remains proposed legislation.

This is problematic for a litany of reasons, including worsening climate and environmental conditions, lack of action in the meantime, and a dearth of environmental governance while the U.K. simultaneously prepares to host the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in a few short months. Furthermore, critics note the bill predominantly focuses on long-term goals at a time when short-term action is desperately needed.

Proponents see the bill as “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.” The legislation would mark the first significant opportunity in decades for the U.K. to enact its own environmental governance, separate from sweeping EU directives that at times proved difficult to adapt to U.K.-specific environmental issues and goals.

If enacted, the bill would have significant impacts across the board, including creating an independent environmental watchdog group—the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)—to ensure successful implementation of the bill, formulating binding targets for air and water quality measurements and compliance, and increasing chemical regulation. Other proposed actions include greening or making supply chains more sustainable, increasing wildlife conservation, and reducing deforestation and pollution, among others. The bill would also put an end to the export of plastic waste to developing countries (which many have pointed out the U.K. is already obligated to do as a party to the Basel Convention).

Many of those opposed to the bill represent environmental NGOs. While generally supportive of the aims outlined in the bill, this contingency calls on such goals to be strengthened considerably, with clear-cut and short-term deadlines, direct language, the closing of potential loopholes, and expansion of efforts beyond what they see as a lackluster baseline. NGOs further call on the bill to provide a deeper explanation of the OEP, including options for recourse and/or power the watchdog will have over enacting sanctions for noncompliance issues, how independently it will be run, and other areas of concern. They take issue with the weakly worded targets, lack of clear deadlines, and areas where proposed environmental protections would prove weaker than previously allowed under EU governance, among other issues.

Others are opposed to specific components of the Environment Bill. Large corporations and trade associations representing the food industry are not keen on the provisions related to greening their supply chains, nor the requirements to ensure their supply chains are not contributing to illegal deforestation, including in countries outside of the U.K. At least one trade association has called for an incentive-based compliance program for companies, rather than fine-based regulation. Still other companies, including some of the world’s largest multinational corporations, actually openly support the bill, or want it strengthened further.

Yet another group opposed to the Environment Bill are those seeking to protect wildlife and species in the U.K. According to the State of Nature 2019 Reports, 15% of species are threatened with extinction in the U.K. and 41% of species’ populations have decreased since 1970. At the forefront of such concerns are the amendments introduced in June 2021 focused on wildlife protection—or rather, a lack thereof. In May 2021, the U.K. Environment Secretary George Eustice outlined an ambitious plan for a net-zero commitment and a “historic new legally binding species target for 2030, which will drive action to halt the decline of nature and wildlife” in amendments to the Environment Bill. Weeks later, the amendments actually introduced did not set this critical target, instead “requiring the decline to slow down by 2030.”

The amendments outline a fairly ambiguous species abundance target for the year 2030, and lack a corresponding plan with specific actions to reduce or halt the decline of wildlife. Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, noted the latest iteration focuses “[on] ‘furthering’ (not delivering) the objective of halting species decline. This means that the Government could set a target that slightly slows the decline of nature, but there’s no requirement whatsoever in law to actually halt the decline.” The recent changes could also lead to a weakening of the key Habitat Regulations, widely considered the U.K.’s most important legal protection rules for wildlife.

With these issues held in conjunction, some leading environmental NGOs have strong doubts about the effectiveness of the Environment Bill to positively impact wildlife protection. Advocates, NGOs, the general public, and others are instead advocating for Net Zero for Nature, a concept previously brought forth by the U.K. government but diluted significantly by the amendments. Echoing concerns opponents have to the bill in its entirety, Benwell notes, “Without a clear date when it would be achieved, this wildlife target is certainly not a net zero for nature. With swift changes, the Environment Bill could still be world-leading, but at the moment it remains a run of the mill Bill, not the groundbreaking law that was promised.”

What is on the horizon for the proposed legislation? In May 2021, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published both an update addressing many of the prevailing concerns and a response to criticism with more specific details of the Environment Bill. Reiterating the goals of the bill, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow welcomed the Environment Bill back again to Parliament and stated the importance of the bill to “build back greener from the pandemic . . . address the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss and protect and improve the environment for future generations,” calling on its passage into law as soon as possible.

While opportunities and challenges abound for the U.K. government to enact U.K.-specific environmental laws, it is key, both for the U.K. and for wider implications across the globe, that the desire to “deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” is evidenced and enacted in legislation, not left an unachieved goal. This will require significant coordination by Defra, politicians, leading NGOs, industry, advocates, and the general public. With cooperation, innovative approaches, and strengthened terms and commitment, the Environment Bill has the potential to become landmark environmental governance, ushering in a new era for environmental law and policy in the U.K., and across the world.