Environment

The UK government still doesn't know what its environmental targets are

Environment secretary Therese Coffey could not confirm when the targets would be published.

red poppies stand out on the green fields and blue sky

The view over the South Downs in Hampshire. The British countrysde may be threatened without environmental targets. Image: sagesolar/Flickr

A year after Cop26, the passing of Environment Act 2021 and its own deadline, the UK government still isn’t sure when it will publish its own targets for air quality, water pollution, biodiversity, and waste reduction, Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey told MPs on Tuesday.

The targets “are very stretching”, Coffey told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, and that she is “very keen to accelerate” the government’s work towards achieving them but could not commit further.

“I’d like to think I have a reputation for delivery,” she said. “I’m very conscious of some things being later than they should have been. It’s something that I am very keen to accelerate and we are making sure to focus on the things that will make a real difference to the environment.”

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Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, responded: “We want the maximum environmental benefit. The concern is that the [targets] are perhaps not deliverable.

“On the one hand, you don’t want to set targets that are easily deliverable so you do want them to be stretching. But you don’t want them to be stretching and necessary for the environment but, for other reasons, undeliverable.”

The department “tried to get an important balancing act” between the environment and “carbon outcomes”, Coffey said, especially when it comes to reducing emission across the whole of government, but added “I really can’t say any more”.

The Conservative government, which had three prime ministers and environment secretaries between early September and late October, previously failed to meet the October 31 deadline to confirm the new targets.

Coffey became environment secretary on October 25 and was swiftly criticised for saying her main green credentials were using “permanent cups that we can recycle properly or reuse” when asked what she was doing to address the climate crisis.

The MP for Suffolk previously admitted that she was “disappointed” by the delay in publishing the targets, however. In November, Coffey said: “I was disappointed, frankly, when I became secretary of state to discover that we weren’t in a place to publish these targets but we are now working at pace. I’m building on the work of my predecessors and indeed for the environmental implementation plan as well.”

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At the time, Coffey said her intention was for the targets to be released by the end of the year but could not confirm whether they would be, blaming the “change of administration” for the delay.

Phillip Dunne, chairman of the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) and Conservative MP for Ludlow in Shropshire, had told Defra that the committee was concerned about the delay and asked for the targets to be published before the United Nations’ Biodiversity Conference, Cop15, concluded on December 19.

The EAC chairman also called for Coffey to set out a timetable for publication of documents on Defra’s key initiatives, and particularly highlighted water quality and fast fashion as key areas where progress has been slow.

He said, “Prompt, clear and decisive action is now of the utmost importance.”

In today’s committee session, Coffey added that the department has “tried to get an important balancing act” in the targets by “considering both the environmental improvements that we want and also carbon outcomes.”

One of the targets due to be published relates to water quality and pollution. During the session, MP for Whistable Rosie Duffield questioned whether Coffey would meet with various campaign groups who are advocating for renationalising the water companies to prevent sewage spills.

Coffey said, “I don’t think we need to.”

“I’m very disappointed in several of the water companies, but there are several powers that we created in the environment act last year which we will be deploying to significantly improve transparency, getting real-time data, and to monitor water quality upstream and downstream of their assets,” she continued.

Coffey, who said that she recognises the “impact” that sewage spills have, also said that Defra would be summoning water companies to Defra on Monday to discuss “issues that we have become aware of.”

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