Were we on the cusp of an environmental legislative breakthrough?

By James Watson, Senior Account Executive, Energy & Environment Practice


Thanks to Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the evocative images from the BBC’s Blue Planet II, the public’s attention has been increasingly and consistently focused on environmental concerns, according to a recent YouGov poll (June 2019). This same poll reported that Brits now view the “environment” as one of the top three issues facing the UK.

This recent awareness on green issues has produced a call for ministers and parliamentarians to act, not least because it distracts attention from another knotty and divisive issue that has consumed Westminster over the past years. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the government’s long-awaited Environment Bill was recently announced in the Queen’s Speech.

This landmark bill – if you are unfamiliar with it – is a far-reaching environmental edict that intends to beef up standards and environmental improvement targets on air and water quality, plastic waste and natural conservation efforts.

This legislation is, arguably, an attempt to fill some of the gaps that will inevitably emerge in UK environmental law once the country leaves the EU and a bid by this Conservative government to bolster its green credentials and to change the narrative away from Brexit.

The law will establish an independent Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) that will scrutinize environmental policy and force public authorities to green their activities. The OEP will also cover climate change legislation and hold the government to account on its net-zero by 2050 commitments. Regarding air pollution targets, the bill enables the Environment Secretary to set targets that tackle high levels of harmful fine particulate matter.

Making good on the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy, this legislation also makes provisions for managing waste. The measures will enable the government to reform the producer responsibility system, ensure waste collection uniformity across the UK, and impose a deposit return scheme (DRS).

Judging from the list of asks detailed in this bill, the government has attempted to confront the green awareness surge with all guns blazing but it still faces a number of problems, not least from the powers that this bill would provide to the new OEP and the Environment Secretary.

The powerful Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and its formidable chair, Labour’s Mary Creagh MP, have already scrutinised and taken exception to the draft version of this bill. The EAC has argued that, since the OEP’s funding, monitoring targets and chair will be set and appointed by the government, it will lack the independence and enforcement powers to hold the administration to account.

Creagh has also argued that the OEP’s powers are a poor substitute for the European Commission’s, and the Financial Times has recently reported on a government document that shows that the UK plans to diverge from European norms, once it leaves the EU.

The bill, is therefore expected to be a legislative battleground for parliament’s environmentalist and pro-EU camps, who may attempt to amend the bill in committee stage to ensure that the UK remains aligned with Europe’s powers and standards and, ultimately, slow its progress through both of the Houses.

Conversely, the bill may have given the government more powers than it may wish to handle, given its quest to achieve net-zero by 2050.

Another legislative endeavor – the long-awaited Energy White Paper – will likely contain a raft of decarbonisation measures and renewable solutions to reach the UK’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Given the UK’s energy mix will have to include some carbon-intensive and high particulate matter emitting energy sources in the medium term, a balance will need to be found between net-zero and the economics of the energy market.

Since the Environment Bill will allow the Environment Secretary to set targets on air quality targets, it may lead to incoherence between the emissions targets set by the Energy Strategy and Environment Bill’s air pollution targets. Thus, we could arrive at a situation where the Strategy’s and the Bill’s targets are at cross purposes, dealing a blow to the UK’s climate change aspirations.

On the face of it, the current government has clearly recognised the public’s concern regarding green issues but, depending on where you stand, it has produced legislation that either provides the OEP and the government with too little power to make a difference or too much that it risks causing policy incoherence.

All of these concerns will be put on ice now that a General Election has been called, as legislation cannot be carried over from one parliament to the next and the government has until Tuesday 5th of November to gain support from the opposition parties and the likes of Mary Creagh to push through this bill.

Still, it is likely that if this Conservative government is returned, the Bill will be revived and – bar any major changes to the EAC’s view or to the legislation itself - the challenges that it faces will remain.

If you’re interested in the issues raised in this blog please do not hesitate to get in touch with me directly or with a member of Madano’s Energy & Environment practice. The practice advises clients across the Energy & Environment space offering support in Insights, Government and Media Relations and Marketing Content.