12 November, 2019

The Environment Bill

An unpredictable bill with very predictable themes.

Dan Botterill
Written by Dan Botterill

The Environment Bill has been in the news a lot lately.

On 29th October, it passed its second reading by MPs unopposed, but it still has a long way to go to receive royal assent and actually make it into law.

Timing though, is everything.

How will the impact of the Brexit extension and the recently announced General Election on 12th December impact its future? It is entirely feasible that the Bill may never see the light of day and actually become law.

There are a number of sustainability themes being illustrated by the Bill that will likely be adopted by whichever government is in charge and are pretty standard and predictable. The Liberal Democrats seem to be going a step further via a ‘wellbeing’ budget approach, but many of the themes discussed in their recent policy statement are also covered by the Environment Bill.  Jeremy Corbyn described a 'Green Industrial Revolution' yesterday, it will be really interesting to see what Labour's policy commitments look like too.

In this blog I cover briefly the main themes of the Bill and our What is? module will illustrate how these sustainability and policy concepts will impact us as individuals and organisations in the future. 

Why do we need the Bill in the first place?

Much of our environmental law in the UK has its origins in EU Directives.

Given this Bill has been prepared by the Conservative party, the custodians of our Brexit, there was clearly a need to iterate policy objectives post Brexit. Indeed, if you read the policy statement, it describes the Bill as being the mechanism to delivering a ‘Green Brexit’.

The Brexit rhetoric starts early!  We really must move beyond this overly simplistic ‘green’ sentiment and talk more in the language of sustainability and sustainable development.

My preference would be to see a ‘Sustainable Development Bill’, rather than an ‘Environment Bill’, particularly given the increasing prominence of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Environmental Governance

The Bill contains an extensive section on governance.  Legislation is already in place to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the Environment Bill aims to build on this legislation.  Environmental principles will be embedded in all future policy making and environmental oversight will be strengthened.  

Resources, waste and a circular economy

The circular economy is a hot topic in sustainability terms.  Moving us from the ‘take, make, use, throw’ linear system to a model where resources are kept in use for longer with value extraction maximised is now a staple sustainability concept.

Air quality

Air pollution is a big issue, both in terms of its impact on human health, but also in terms of its impact on nature.  Improving air quality is therefore a fundamental objective of any environmental strategy.

Back in January the Government published its Clean Air Strategy and the Environment Bill builds on measures proposed in this strategy.

Water

With the back drop of global warming, droughts and more extreme weather conditions, water is clearly a top agenda item.  We also continue to waste water to an alarming level so robust measures are required to ensure long term water sustainability.

Improving the natural environment

This is a significant component of the bill and it is all about combatting environmental decline and the principles of Net Gain. Biodiversity has fallen significantly over the last few decades and bold measures are required in terms of policy to improve our environments.

Chemicals regulation (REACH)

Chemicals regulation/legislation in the UK is driven by an EU Regulation called REACH, which is in two parts:

  1. The REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) Regulation regulates the manufacture, placing on the market and use of chemicals.
  2. The REACH Enforcement Regulations 2008 set out how the requirements of the REACH Regulation are enforced.

The Environment Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to amend these two pieces of legislation, as both are retained EU law under the current European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

A local, community approach to environmental management

This is an incredibly important concept in sustainability terms. If we can think more locally about our impacts, we can adopt a community approach to sustainability. This shouldn’t simply fall on the shoulders of Local Government, all citizens and businesses should be encouraged to collaborate and participate.


Conclusion

The Environment Bill is extensive, and makes a good start in terms of addressing a range of key issues we can really take control over.  I would however like to see some enhancements to the thinking that could deliver significant improvements to our environments:

  • Clearer lines on the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ - we need to reward and incentive good behaviour and take a much stricter line on bad behaviour, via taxes and greater penalties for non-compliance. We should invest much more heavily in enforcement measures.
  • We need to think in the language of ‘Sustainable Development’. Of course the Environment is the centre point to all this, but I’d love to see a bolder bill that addresses sustainability and in particular provides greater alignment with the SDGs.
  • I’d like to see much more detail on education and engagement measures. These issues can not only sit with Central and Local Government; we need to provide more sustainability education from schools through to business.  A central policy theme is around the preventive principle – the only way we can do this is to help people understand how they can prevent waste, reduce energy and water consumption and enhance biodiversity is through education.  The same concept should be applied to the way we procure goods and services.  We need much more broader understanding to be developed by society on these issues.

What next?

We will be providing What is? content to explore further the thematic nature of the Bill which will illustrate how these sustainability and policy concepts will impact us as individuals and organisations in the future.

Look out for this soon.