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Environment Bill: What is it, what laws will be in it and when to expect it

The Environment Bill could pass into law later this year. Here's what you need to know about the legislation
One campaigner said the Environment Bill is "toothless" and "riddled with exemptions". Image: Pexels

The UK government’s Environment Bill promises to cut air pollution, protect the country’s nature spots and reduce waste.

The bill will play a pivotal role in the UK’s fight to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – and campaigners hoped it would be in place before Glasgow hosted COP26 later this year – but the bill has been delayed three times since its introduction in 2018.

Here’s what you need to know about the Environment Bill: how it will affect the country’s battle against the climate crisis, when to expect it and the new laws it could include.

What is the Environment Bill?

The legislation details plans following the country’s departure from the EU, which set planet-protecting laws for the UK before Brexit.

The legislation will put wildlife targets into law, meaning the government will be accountable for reintroducing animals lost from the UK in past years – such as wildcats – and helping diminishing species such as beavers to recover. 

A new 2030 biodiversity target will aim to reverse the declines of species such as the hedgehog, red squirrel and water vole.

The UK ranks 228th out of 240 countries and territories for protecting wildlife and nature from human activity, according to the RSPB.

The government will also ban the sale of peat compost by 2024, Environment Secretary George Eustice said, with England’s damaged peatlands emitting 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

Tree planting rates in England will be trebled before the end of this parliament, a legally binding target expected to be included in the bill, and 6,000 hectares of new woodland will be planned for planting by 2025.

A deposit return scheme for bottles and drinks containers could be part of the Environment Bill too.

The government has also promised targets for preserving the UK’s water resources and measures to improve how easy it is for Brits to recycle, as well as pledging to ban the export of plastic waste from the UK to other countries.

Will the Environment Bill cut air pollution?

Legally binding targets for cleaning up the country’s air are expected to be included in the bill but, like much of the new legislation, they will be set for after the end of the current parliament. 

Campaigners and experts want action now, however. Air pollution limits in the UK are “far higher” than World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, according to coroner Philip Barlow in a report on preventing future deaths

Barlow investigated the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death after she died in 2013.

Campaigners, researchers and crossbench MPs have all called on the government to put short-term targets for cleaner air in the bill, but those targets will not be delivered until 2022 at the earliest.

You can check current air pollution levels at your address here.

What do campaigners think of the bill?

Amendments that would give a nature watchdog more powers as well as strengthening protections for wildlife habitats were voted down at the bill’s third reading.

The bill “includes no set date for the government to halt the decline of wildlife, merely requiring the decline to slow down by 2030,” a group of environmental organisations including Wildlife and Countryside Link warned in a statement

“With swift changes, the Environment Bill could still be world-leading, but, at the moment, it remains a run-of-the-mill bill, not the ground-breaking law that was promised,” they added.

Julie Barratt, president of the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, said in a statement she was “deeply disappointed” that attempts to put immediate air pollution targets in the bill failed.

“The recent coroner’s report attributing the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah partially to air pollution should be a wake-up call,” she said. “Action has to be taken. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity.”

Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said in a statement ministers had “failed to bring forward an ambitious green recovery, flirted with proposals for a new deep coal mine, axed the housing retrofit scheme and are way off track for our net zero targets”, while a Friends of the Earth campaigner told The Guardian the bill was “toothless” and “riddled with exemptions”.

What stage is the Environment Bill at?

The bill returned to parliament on May 26 for its report stage and third reading in the House of Commons. 

It is now being scrutinised by a House of Lords committee. Further amendments will be proposed at its third Lords reading when peers will have the chance to vote on the bill. The Environment Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent – the final step in the process of becoming law – in autumn 2021.