Defra promises ‘robust, evidence led process’ to set in statute air, water, waste and biodiversity targets by the end of October 2022.

The government has offered a further glimpse of its plans to develop new legally-binding targets for waste and resources, air pollution, biodiversity and water quality in the UK, promising a “robust, evidence-led process” for setting the goals in statute by the end of October 2022.

At least one “strong and meaningful” long-term target for the mid-late 2030s is to be set in each of these four green priority areas, backed by interim non-legally binding goals to measure progress every five years, said the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The targets are to be binding on the current and future governments, which will have to report annually on progress, while further environmental priority areas and legally-binding targets may also be introduced at a later date “informed by the latest scientific evidence”, according to Defra. The proposed new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – which is in the process of being established and recruiting its first chair – will also report annually on the progress towards meeting these air quality, water, waste and biodiversity targets, the Department added.

The latest plans unveiled today form a major pillar of the government’s post-Brexit green policy framework set out in the Environment Bill, which Defra said was set to resume its passage through Parliament “as soon as possible” after MPs return from their summer break. Environment Secretary George Eustice said the new targets would support the Prime Minister’s pledge to “build back greener” after the Covid-19 crisis, by providing businesses and investors with long-term certainty to shift towards greener practices and technologies. “The targets we set under our landmark Environment Bill will be the driving force behind our bold action to protect and enhance our natural world – guaranteeing real and lasting progress on some of the biggest environmental issues facing us today,” he said. “I hope these targets will provide some much-needed certainty to businesses and society, as we work together to build back better and greener.” The government plans to collaborate with independent experts and stakeholders to ensure the resulting targets are “strong, meaningful and environmental outcome focused”.

The long-term air quality target is envisaged to specifically focus on fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5), which has a major detrimental impact on human health, and of which a major emitter is road vehicles. The UK already faces a raft of targets for other air pollutants under EU law – such as for nitrogen dioxide, for which swathes of UK regions are still in breach of legal limits – but to date no binding goal has been set for PM2.5.

The UK also has targets in place via the EU to up its recycling rates and cut residual waste, but new targets are expected to resource productivity, waste reduction and plastic pollution, according to Defra, while targets on water are expected to focus on combating pollution and waste water. And, the government said it would explore targets to restore and create wildlife-rich habitats in protected sites with a view to increasing species populations and improving marine biodiversity. But while the move to set new environmental targets in law has been broadly welcomed by green businesses and campaign groups alike, concerns remain over the scope, breadth and enforcement of the goals as the UK forges its own path outside the European Union.

Kate Norgrove, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF-UK, said legally binding targets were critical but that “we need detail and urgency”.
“To address the nature crisis, we need these legally binding targets in the UK now – but just as urgent is the need to tackle the environmental damage we import,” she said. “A credible Environment Bill has to help protect the Amazon and other disappearing habitats with tough new nature laws to eliminate deforestation from the products we buy.”