It has been more than two years since the Environment Bill was introduced and finally, during the second week of COP 26, it finally received Royal Assent. Whilst there has been significant criticism with regard to the strength of action, the Act has been largely welcomed as a step in the right direction to address the climate crisis.
The new Act will bring consultations early next year and will explore new legally binding targets to improve nature, air quality and water quality, due to be introduced next year
Royal Assent was granted on Tuesday on 9 November in a bid to support the Government’s overarching vision for leaving nature in a better state for the next generation, and to confirm the UK’s approach to environmental governance post-Brexit. The timing of Royal Assent, during the UK’s hosting of COP 26, was clearly intended to send a message to the world of the UK’s commitment to change.
There are key provisions which include the creation of the watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, which will introduce a new ‘comply or explain’ directive on deforestation to address businesses importing commodities which place forests at risk and bans on selected single-use plastic items including cutlery and polystyrene cups.
There were a number of amendments which blocked more substantial provisions for ancient woodland protection in planning frameworks, restrictions on powers to reduce habitat-related regulations and no legal duty to cut raw sewage releases into rivers. The Lords introduced an amendment to ensure that wastewater processors “take all reasonable steps” to remove sewage discharges from overflows but this does not go far enough to prevent such contamination.
Many Green campaigners have pressed the Government to present the Bill as a starting point to change rather than this being an achievement in itself. To deliver effective and affordable change, the targets of the Environment Act must be embedded across government policy, and everyone must be held to account. What is clear is that the legislation provides opportunities to open conversations on the impacts that supply chain decisions can have on shaping change. The question is: Does the Government have the courage to hold the UK to account for long term change or will this be another damp squib?