'Substantive action is now very urgent' if government is to meet natural environment pledge, declares independent advisory body
The government's promise to leave the natural environment in a better state for the next generation has been thrown into question by the UK's Natural Capital Committee (NCC), which this week published a scathing assessment that warned current poor progress "is going to lead to failure".
In a frank analysis of the government's efforts, the independent advisory body said overall progress "has not been good", adding that despite some successes, only "moderate/limited" headway had been made towards some of the 10 goals set out in the government's 25 Year Environment Plan published last January.
That Plan reiterated the government's pledge, first set out in a 2011 white paper, to "make ours the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it". Its overarching goals included boosting air and water quality, protecting plants and wildlife, reducing waste, enhancing biosecurity, and adapting to and mitigating climate change.
However, the NCC's sixth annual report - officially launched yesterday - said the gap between ambition and outcomes "remains considerable" and that "substantive action is now very urgent".
It said the 25 Year Plan for the Environment needed to be placed on "meaningful statutory footing" to ensure progress accelerates, and must be backed by adequate resources and funding in order to reap the significant economic benefits thatresult from healthy natural capital.
"Business as usual is going to lead to failure," it states. "Having raised expectations, the government's credibility is on the line."
The report also sets out a raft of specific recommendations. It argues that at present environmental policy and regulation is hampered by a "crowded landscape of overlapping bodies", which "needs to be urgently reviewed". The NCC's intervention follows a flurry of stories about the impact of budget cuts and Brexit on environmental delivery and regulatory bodies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency, which have seen staff reassigned to Defra to work on Brexit issues in recent months.
The report also calls for an overhaul of the environmental policy landscape, arguing the government should designate a lead body to oversee delivery of the Plan and its 10 goals, which it said should be enshrined in legislation in the government's proposed Environment Bill.
Moreover, the report points to a "worrying" absence of data on the state of natural capital in the UK, and calls for a five-yearly environmental census to be carried out in order to provide a "radical upgrade" on available metrics.
However, the report does highlight some notable environmental improvements for the UK, including better bathing water quality and reductions in atmospheric emissions of sulphur oxide, mercury and lead, as well an increase in the number of marine protected areas and heritage sites since 2011.
It also welcomes more recent policy signals from the government, such as the proposed new Agriculture Bill aimed at rewarding farmers for providing environmental services, as well as the draft Environment Bill.
But in other areas the report finds progress slowing, or in outright decline. It points in particular to a 35 per cent decrease in the amount of surface water bodies in England achieving high or good ecological status, adding that just 14 per cent of English rivers currently meet these standards.
Meanwhile, wildlife such as bees, butterflies, and farmland birds and bats "have either continued to decline or stagnate in number", with only half of habitats meeting minimum quality targets set by Natural England.
The wide-ranging report, which covers a raft of environmental topics and issues - including the ivory trade and the government's plans to plant a new Northern Forest - also highlights the three per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the UK's transport sector in 2017.
Made up of eight professors, including Oxford economist Dieter Helm, the NCC is also tasked with advising the government's National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which too came in for heavy criticism in yesterday's report.
NCC said the NIC's National Infrastructure Assessment published last summer "fails to address adequately the opportunities green infrastructure provides, and fails to take full account of the environmental impacts of its specific infrastructure proposals", adding that future assessments should rectify this.
The NCC and wider advocates of the natural capital school of thought have long argued that enhanced environmental assets can deliver huge economic benefits in terms of productivity gains, climate resilience, improved agricultural yields, and better risk management.
Writing the report's foreword, Helm said that "broadly the natural environment has been deteriorating".
"To turn this around is a huge undertaking, and requires a radical change of direction across all the departments of government," he writes. "We can be green and prosperous, but it will not happen by default."
NCC's report was officially launched at the Natural Capital Investment Conference in London yesterday, where Environment Secretary Michael Gove reiterated Defra's previously stated desire to place the 25 Year Plan for the Environment goals on a statutory footing.
.@michaelgove now speaking @Nat_Cap_Com annual report launch. He confirms desire to put all #25YEP goals on a statutory basis - an ambitious suite of targets will drive innovation and hold government's feet to the fire #EnvironmentBill— Sarah Williams (@sarahw243) February 5, 2019
In a statement yesterday, Defra confirmed Gove's comments and underlined its pledge to leave the environment "in a better state than we found it".
"In December we announced plans to place the 25 Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing in the Environment Bill," said Defra. "The draft clauses of the Bill also set out the framework for a new, independent environment body - the Office for Environmental Protection - which will hold the government to account as we deliver a Green Brexit."
Ecosystems Knowledge Network, which organised yesterday's conference, welcomed the NCC report for highlighting the "golden opportunity" for natural capital to play a key part in the delivery of the 25 Year Environment Plan.
However, it said the principles for delivering environmental policy were still "open to question", and called on the NCC "to be clear on the role of the private sector in financing the level of environmental restoration that will be crucial in climate resilience".
"The UK is on the cusp of a great opportunity to use natural capital investment to realise the ambition it laid out in the 25 Year Environmental Plan," it said in a statement. "Missing this will have severe implications for the future quality of our natural resources and our economy's and society's resilience to climate change."
There have also been reports that Defra's push to ensure clear and binding environmental targets and strong governance mechanisms are included in the Environment Bill and embeded in UK legislation post-Brexit has faced significant resistance from the Treasury, which has voiced fears about the potential short term economic impacts of more ambitious environmental policies.
The NCC's assessment suggests the UK's natural environment is in a worrying state, despite government promises. Ministers clearly hope a renewed policy focus and legislative footing will provide some of the solutions, but with precise details of the government's agriculture and environment bills still being worked on, it's far from clear whether the current good intentions will translate into tangible progress. If the NCC is to be believed, there's still a long way to go and the costs of continued slow progress for the environment and business alike could be severe.
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