Skip to content

Follow us

Join us Opens in a new window Donate
Return to mob menu
ClientEarth Communications

1 April 2022

Rule of law
UK

The UK Environment Act - what's happening now?

What is the UK Environment Act, and why do we need it?

The Environment Act, which became law in 2021, acts as the UK’s new framework of environmental protection. Once the UK left the EU, rules on nature protection, water quality, clean air and other environmental protections that originally came from Brussels were at risk. This Act is intended to fill the gap. Our legal teams followed the development of the Act closely for several years, advocating for the UK to have strong environmental laws post-Brexit.

What does the Environment Act cover?

The Environment Act allows the UK to enshrine better environmental protection into law. It provides the Government with powers to set new binding targets, including for air quality, water, biodiversity, and waste reduction. These should be ambitious, meaningful and informed by experts.

The Act also established a new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will hold the Government and other public bodies to account, and ensure that environmental laws are complied with.

Even though the Act is now law however, we believe that the details of it do not quite meet the world-leading ambition that the government set out to ensure, particularly around provisions for environmental governance, forest protection, and clean air.

What's the latest on the UK Environment Act?

On 16 March 2022, Defra launched an eight-week public consultation on the new, long-term environmental targets called for under the Environment Act, including for air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency/waste reduction.

At the time, we had two major points of concern about the way in which the consultation was being run:

  • It lacked critical information to enable a properly informed consultee response
  • It was of insufficient length in terms of the consultation period prescribed

In addition, the policy statement on environmental principles required by the Act was still evolving and unfinished, despite it being intended by Parliament to play a key role in informing government policies that affect the environment, including these important long-term environmental targets.

How did the consultation lack critical information?

The consultation was said to be relying on the following information in relation to the proposed targets and how they had been developed:

  • Evidence reports for each proposed target
  • ‘Outstanding’ meeting minutes of expert groups that inform target development
  • Impact assessments for each target and ‘an overarching Impact Assessment’
  • The policy statement on environmental principles

However, the missing evidence reports, meeting minutes and impact assessments had not been published nearly three weeks into the eight-week consultation period. The policy statement on environmental principles had also not been finalised.

Why did we think the original planned consultation period was of insufficient length?

We believed that the consultation period was too short to allow meaningful engagement of those being consulted, as the environmental law and policies being discussed are complex and hugely significant for shaping the way in which we care for our environment in years to come.

What action from the government were we advocating for?

We believed the government needed to:

  1. Publish the missing information
  2. Extend the consultation period for an appropriate period of time, to enable those consulted to review the additional information
  3. Publish the final version of the environmental principles policy statement and ensure that all relevant government decisions affecting the environment take it into account in accordance with the Environment Act.

The Environment Act is hugely important – the UK needs to have environmental laws post-Brexit. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set targets that can really protect our environment and our health. But as it currently stands, the Act that falls short of the world-leading ambition that the government initially set out to ensure.

Were our concerns heard?

On 6th May 2022, the Gov announced that the consultation period had been extended until 27th June.

While we are glad to see the final evidence published and the weeks of unhelpful delay somewhat reflected in the extension, we are still concerned about the haphazard way in which the consultation has been handled. The fact remains that these critical targets are still nowhere near where they need to be to protect the health of people and the environment.

What's in the UK Environment Act?

Air pollution

What does the Act say?

The Act will create at least two new legally binding targets for one of the most harmful pollutants, fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Binding targets are essential for setting a clear direction for public bodies, private organisations and the public alike.

In March 2022, the government proposed a new legally binding target to reduce levels of PM2.5 to 10 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) by 2040. This target is only a proposal at this stage and will be confirmed after a public consultation has been carried out.

How did we work to influence the Act?

We've been fighting for cleaner air, both in the UK and across the EU, for years. Following our three legal challenges between 2011 and 2018, the UK government has now directed over 60 English councils to reduce pollution to within the legal limit for the toxic gas, NO2, in the shortest possible time. A number of Clean Air Zones are currently being rolled out across the country and we have been calling on the UK Government to ensure that these are underpinned by financial help and support to affected people and businesses.

Prior to the Act becoming law, we had been following the Environment Bill closely, advocating for essential air pollution improvements to be made as it went through Parliament.

Existing legal limits for one of the most harmful pollutants – fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – are two times weaker than guideline levels established by the World Health Organization (WHO). These weak targets on PM2.5 have been pointed out as hugely problematic by a coroner in London. After finding that air pollution contributed to the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, the coroner said that aligning the UK’s legal limits with the WHO guidelines would prevent more people dying.

On top of advocating for stricter legal limits to meet WHO guideline levels for PM2.5 by 2030, we, along with other health, transport and environment organisations, called for:

  • Robust plans to ensure binding targets are met
  • A new ‘clean air duty’ that requires all public bodies to actively play their part in delivering solutions to tackle air pollution

Cleaning up our toxic air protects the health of UK citizens, but also makes sense for the financial health of the country too. The Royal College of Physicians has estimated that the social cost of air pollution to individuals and the health service is over £20bn annually in the UK. Similarly, the Confederation of British Industry estimates that a £1.6bn annual economic benefit to the UK could be realised by meeting WHO guidelines.

We have been taking a leading role within the Healthy Air Campaign coalition, calling for essential improvements to the legislation to better protect people from dirty air, which involved meetings with the then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove, as well as then-Minister for air quality, Minister Rebecca Pow MP.

What do we think?

The proposed target will not protect people’s health from particulate pollution.

Exposure to particulate matter pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, increase the risk of asthma attacks resulting in hospitalization or worse, cause lung cancer, and stunt the lung-growth of children.

It is deeply disappointing that the government is proposing 2040 as the deadline for achieving new ambition to reduce PM2.5 pollution. This means that people will have to wait another 18 years to breathe safer air.

That is despite the fact that analysis by King’s College London and Imperial College London have shown that the target could in fact be achieved by 2030. Ministers need to seriously reconsider their proposal and show greater urgency to protect people’s health now.

The target date that the UK Government is proposing is far from 'world-leading'. It means that another generation of children will be exposed to toxic pollution far above what the world's top scientists think is acceptable. Ministers need to seriously reconsider their proposal.

Katie Nield - Clean Air Lead, UK & Western Europe

The Office for Environmental Protection

What does the Act say?

The Act has established the OEP as a new environmental watchdog. This new body is tasked with holding the Government and other public bodies to account, and ensure that environmental laws are complied with after Brexit. It will have various environmental governance roles, including monitoring progress against environmental improvement plans and new environmental targets developed under the Act, and enforcement of breaches of environmental laws by public authorities.

How did we work to influence the Act?

We have championed good environmental governance for the UK, and the extent to which the OEP will have constitutional oversight of environmental decisions made by Parliament. The OEP must make sure that existing environmental standards are not just maintained after Brexit, but enhanced. We will continue to closely monitor the ability of this watchdog to act independently, as well as the availability of an authoritative enforcement process, which sadly was not specifically guaranteed in the Act.

What do we think?

We believe that the OEP must act independently, and that its core objectives of environmental protection and improvement should not be undermined. Dame Glenys, the OEP's leader, has been clear that she recognised the substantial importance of the OEP in safeguarding environmental standards across the UK, and has previously stated that she intends for it to be an ‘approachable’ organisation that can ‘act intelligently’.

The Office for Environmental Protection will be an important tool that holds the UK government and public bodies to account now that we have left the EU. Its scope is wide-ranging, including monitoring progress against environmental improvement plans and new environmental targets, as well as having the ability to enforce non-compliance with environmental law when public authorities fall short. We look forward to continue working with Dame Glenys and the OEP to champion good environmental governance across the UK.

Gillian Lobo - Acting Head of Litigation

Deforestation

What does the Act say?

The Act currently only restricts forest risk commodities that are produced ‘illegally’ under producer country laws. But about one-third of global tropical deforestation is considered ‘legal’ under local laws. This is particularly worrying, as the Brazilian Government is in the process of passing a package of laws that will weaken or abolish protections for forests, protected areas and Indigenous Peoples. Despite their involvement in the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests, the Brazilian Government’s current package of legal reforms will legalise millions of hectares of deforestation, continuing to link the UK’s supply chains to ongoing global deforestation, regardless of the Act’s ambition to clamp down on it.

How did we work to influence the Act?

Along with a coalition of organisations, we worked to strengthen parts of the Act to ensure that the UK does not contribute to deforestation at home or abroad.

Together with a coalition of NGOs, we developed a joint briefing on the key improvements that should be made to the Environment Bill in order to make it the world-leading legal framework we need. Also, along with a coalition of non-governmental organisations, Indigenous Peoples’ groups, scientists and academics, we wrote to the UK Prime Minister calling on the Government to take urgent action and strengthen its proposal on deforestation and the Amazon. Although our recommendations were ultimately not reflected in the Act, we will continue to advocate for strong laws in the UK that reduce the country's global deforestation footprint, and make sure that the UK doesn't fall behind the EU and others passing similar legislation.

What do we think?

The Act leaves a critical gap in deforestation activity, and undermines the announcements made in Glasgow at COP26. Currently, it does little to prevent the end of the Amazon rainforest. It also undermines the government’s credibility in leading global efforts to increase ambition on deforestation, climate, and biodiversity standards. The new legal framework to address the UK’s deforestation footprint has limited scope and ambition, and the UK’s deforestation footprint will not be sufficiently tackled by it.

More must be done also to include important human rights protections, particularly the rights of Indigenous Peoples and forest defenders – the conversion of forests to agriculture production often leads to displacement of local communities and other human rights impacts. The Act lacks a requirement that UK supply chains should not be linked to violations of the rights of these Peoples and communities.

Lastly, the volume of public and private funds being directed at ‘nature based solutions’ may lead to poorer outcomes in forest-rich countries, unless local communities, civil society organisations and Indigenous Peoples have a say in how their forests are protected. The pledges made at COP26 must be implemented in a way that prioritises the rights and perspectives of forest-based communities and Indigenous Peoples.

We are disappointed that the UK Government’s leadership at COP26 in Glasgow to tackle global deforestation has been undermined by its own flagship law on deforestation. The Environment Act currently does little to realistically prevent the end of the Amazon rainforest, as one-third of global tropical deforestation is considered legal under local laws and will be exempt from new legal restrictions. That percentage is set to grow as millions of hectares of deforestation are set to be legalised, meaning the UK’s supply chains to ongoing global deforestation will continue, regardless of the Act’s ambitions to stamp out this harmful practice.

Brian Rohan - Head of the Forest and Climate Team

The Environment Act is hugely important – the UK needs to have environmental laws post-Brexit. However, the Act that is now law falls short of the world-leading ambition that the government initially set out to ensure, particularly for environmental governance, the protection of forests, and air pollution.

It's now that the work really begins to make sure that the UK has some of the best environmental legislation in the world. As a framework law, the Act is only a foundation, and much relies on further targets, policies and detailed rules that are yet to be developed. These will have to be strong enough, and effectively enforced to protect people’s health and the environment, in order for the Act to fulfil its purpose.

Sign up for more on our work

Latest news

We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. You can read our privacy policy here.

Click 'Continue' if you consent to use all non-essential cookies.