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ClientEarth Communications

7 December 2020

Rule of law

The UK Environment Act is now law: here's what it means

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

The Environment Act, which is now law, 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 seeks to fill the gap. Our legal teams have been following 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 establishes 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, 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.

Air pollution

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 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 driving ambitious action, and setting a clear direction for public bodies, private organisations and the public alike. Many targets are needed to address the complex challenges surrounding air quality.

What do we think?

The government rejected amendments that would have committed them to ensuring that the new targets for PM2.5 pollution were at least in line with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, which is disappointing. It is a missed opportunity that the UK government failed to champion this amendment, especially considering that it already recognises air pollution to be the greatest environmental health risk in the UK.

Existing UK legal limits for this harmful pollutant are four times weaker than current WHO guidelines published in September 2021. The equivalent of an estimated 40,000 early deaths a year are linked to air pollution in the UK alone, and it reduces the quality of life of many millions more people in communities across the country.

The Act's new air quality targets provide the government with a golden opportunity to set truly world-leading ambition to clean up our air, which will not only protect people’s health but drive innovation and growth in clean technologies and the solutions that are already at our finger tips on to tackle air pollution in the UK and across the world. This needs to be led by the evidence on what's necessary to ensure the health of people now and in the future does not suffer as a result of the air they have no choice but to breathe. We look forward to working with the government and other stakeholders through the target-setting process to make sure this is achieved.

Katie Nield - Clean Air Lead, UK & Western Europe

The Office for Environmental Protection

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 has not been specifically guaranteed in the Act.

What does the Act say?

The Act has established the OEP as a new environmental watchdog. This new body will hold 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.

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


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 country doesn't fall behind the EU and others passing similar legislation.

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.

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

What now?

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.

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