Environment

The Environment Act targets have been published. So what do they really mean?

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said the targets are "stretching".

River Derwent

River Derwent in the Peak District may be at risk without strong Environment Act targets. (Credit: John Gregory/Flickr)

After months of delay, the UK government has finally published its targets for air quality, water pollution, biodiversity, and waste reduction.

Ministers had failed to meet the October 31 deadline to confirm their legally binding targets, which Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey previously said was partly due to the “two changes of administration since the Environment Act passed.”

On Friday, Coffey said the published targets are “ambitious and will be challenging to achieve” but will aid efforts to “restore our natural environment” and tackle climate change.

However, the goals have been criticised by leading climate organisations for not going far enough and crucial targets for improving the UK’s sewage-filled water sources and investing in biodiversity were missing altogether.

This is despite Coffey previously expressing disappointment in “several of the water companies” for sewage spills, stating that the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) would be taking action using “powers” set out in the Environment Act to resolve these issues.

Charities also said the targets, which were released while Coffey was attending Cop15 in Montreal, Canada, undermined the UK’s position as a climate leader at the conference.

So, what are the targets and are they as ambitious as the government claims?

Air quality

Top of the list is air quality, and specifically one of the most harmful air pollutants to human health: PM2.5. That’s the scientific shorthand for tiny particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. 

According to Asthma + Lung UK, PM2.5 are particles released by cars, emissions from manufacturing, power generation, and domestic heating and can do devastating damage to the lining of our lungs. Nearly 40,000 deaths a year in the UK can be linked to air pollution, according to research from the Royal College of Physicians in 2016, and seven million worldwide.

The first death in the UK directly attributed to air pollution was nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013 from an asthma attack. 

During the inquest into Ella’s death, assistant coroner for Southwark Philip Barlow said: “Legally binding targets based on World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”

Industrial air pollution
Smog and smoke from an industrial site. (Credit: Chris Leboutillier/Unsplash)

The final target proposed by the government is to reduce both the amount of the pollutant in the air we breathe and the number of people exposed to it by 2040. For those keeping track, that’s cutting PM2.5 down to 10 micrograms per cubic metre, which is twice as much as recommended by the WHO, and reducing the number of people exposed by 35 percent.

According to statistics released by Defra in 2021, the average level of PM2.5 is already at 10 micrograms per cubic metre across the UK, the same as the proposed target.

And Asthma + Lung UK says 22.2 million people live in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution, meaning the government wants to get this down to around 15 million or less.

Air quality campaigners have criticised the targets for not going far enough. 

Smog over London in 2012
Smog over London in 2012, the year before Ella died. (Credit: Shirokazan/Flickr)

Andrea Lee, clean air campaigner at ClientEarth, said the deadline of 2040 is “a shocking 18 years away”, allowing for “another generation of children” to be exposed to toxic pollution.

Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, told the Evening Standard: “The government has betrayed tens of thousands of children and other people whose health will be adversely affected by this decision for many years to come.”

“Air pollution is the largest environmental health risk and it’s inexcusable that the government is setting such a weak target,” Birkett added.

Defra said they are “required to set targets that are achievable across the whole of England” and they do not believe the target is possible to achieve until 2040.

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Water pollution

Another target that faced scrutiny were those related to water pollution, particularly in light of the contamination on beaches across England and Wales over the summer.

A report released by the Environment Agency in July showed that 62 incidents of sewage spill in 2021, the highest number since 2013.

England is considered one of the worst places in Europe for water quality, with just 14 per cent of rivers in “good” ecological conditions, having been polluted with sewage, plastics, urban runoff, and agricultural waste.

Experts previously warned of the danger to both aquatic life and anyone exposed to potentially dangerous pathogens in the water.

Defra announced four targets designed to improve water quality and availability across the UK by 2038, including:

  • Reduce agricultural pollution into the water supply by 40 percent
  • Reduce wastewater pollution by 80 percent 
  • Reduce the length of rivers polluted by metals by 50 percent
  • Reduce the use of public water supply per person by 20 percent

There is no target to improve overall water quality, despite calls from conservation and climate groups during the Environment Act’s public consultation.

The Wildlife Trust in particular called for a target of 75 percent of rivers, streams, and other freshwater bodies to reach “clean waters” status by 2042, stating there would not be any significant improvements to overall water quality without a similar binding target.

But Defra said they are legally bound by water health targets previously set out in the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) Regulations, legislation from 2017 which aimed to improve and protect the water environment across the UK from pollution and deterioration.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trust, said: “Not a single river, lake, or estuary in England is in good health – with sewage, agricultural and chemical pollution continuing to pour into our waterways. Failing to set targets to tackle these fundamental issues defies public opinion.”

Megan Corton Scott, political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said the consultation process was “nothing more than a box-ticking exercise” and called it “shameful” for the government to not have listened to the “huge public outcry.”

Plastic and waste pollution in a lake
Plastic and waste in unknown lake. Water pollution has been a big issue this year. (Credit: Jakayla Toney/Unsplash)

Biodiversity

A study by scientists at the Natural History Museum in London published in 2021 showed a loss of almost 50 per cent of the UK’s wildlife and plant species as a result of human and land development since the Industrial Revolution. 

The level of loss is far higher than the global average of 25 per cent, leading to the UK being ranked as one of the worst countries for keeping its biodiversity intact.

Experts say the world average for biodiversity intactness should be at 90 per cent in order to avoid “ecological meltdown.”

As such, Defra states that the biodiversity targets outlined in the Environment Act are “world-leading” and will “help the UK to meet its international commitment” to protect 30 per cent of its land and seas by 2030. 

But, some of the final targets proposed are vague, include securing a greater abundance in species, reducing the risk of species extinction, restoring or creating 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat, and ensuring 70 per cent of marine protected areas are “favourable conditions,” all by 2042, as well as an aim to halt nature’s decline by 2030.

Defra does not set out how each of these targets will be achieved.

“The target to halt nature’s decline by the end of the decade is welcome but this should be coupled with a genuine target for nature’s recovery,” Bennett from the Wildlife Trust said. “Simply aiming for marginally more nature in 20 years’ time than our current, extremely depleted state is far from world-leading and an abdication of our responsibility to future generations.”

Waste reduction

According to statistics released by Defra, the UK generated 222.2 million tonnes of waste in 2018, or roughly 409 kilograms per person. 

At least half of that waste ended up in landfill, while 25 per cent was “treated” to remove harmful substances and later released into the sea, rivers and other water bodies. 

Defra is aiming to reduce waste per person by 50 per cent by 2042, down to a maximum of 204kg per person.

This target does not include any waste generated from mining and fossil fuels, and did not conclude what the most “appropriate approach to measure” individual and collective waste would be, nor did it outline any methods for overall waste reduction. 

But Defra said they will “consider this further” using the responses from the public consultation.

overflowing bin in oxford
A bin overflowing with rubbish in Oxford. We produce around 409kg of waste per person. (Credit: Andrea de Santis)

What happens next?

Overall, despite the government’s insistence that the targets are “ambitious” and will drive action towards tackling climate change in the UK, many don’t seem to agree.

Scott at Greenpeace UK said the government “has failed to grasp the urgency of the nature crisis” through these “toothless” targets.

“Nothing new on water quality. Nothing new on wildlife-rich habitats. Nothing new on tackling plastic pollution. And a lowering of ambition for protecting and growing our woodlands,” she said. “This is a far cry from ‘the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’ that people voted for in 2019”.

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Scott argued that it is “not too late to strengthen these targets” and called for “swift action” from the government as the current proposals are “not even close to being good enough”.

The targets must be approved by parliament before they come into effect. Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, said the agency “will now play an active role in helping to deliver them”.

Each of these long-term targets set out by Defra will be accompanied by smaller, non-legally binding goals that will help to achieve the bigger target. 

The government gave themselves a deadline of January 31, 2023 to publish these, but given they were nearly two months late publishing the initial targets, we wouldn’t recommend holding your breath.

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