Joseph Lewis
December 2021

2021: Are air, water, and nature any better off?

gold balloons which read: "2021"

After years of delays and debates, 2021 finally saw the Environment Act enter law. With this major landmark now achieved, the future of the natural environment should be much clearer, but is it really? For all the effort needed to produce the Environment Act, have we actually seen positive outcomes for air, water, nature, and our resources?

2022 will be a critical year for environmental governance. As the outcomes of the Environment Act, Agriculture Act, and 25 Year Environmental Plan begin to be implemented, they will need to live up to (and in some cases exceed) expectations. In the context of the recent COP26 Climate Summit, the still-imminent COP15 on biodiversity, and the need for a green recovery from COVID-19 in order to achieve transformative change, this new framework will need to deliver positive environmental outcomes.

Has the governance gap been filled?

One of the most substantial challenges of the UK’s exit from the European Union has been the creation of a new framework of environmental governance, which if done successfully has the potential to revitalise and embed our ability to secure positive environmental outcomes across government. Equally, a failure to fill the governance gap would be a significant missed opportunity.

The Office for Environmental Protection is now operational, with IES Chair Julie Hill serving as a board member. 

Theoretically, the environmental principles and the long-term legally-binding targets set under the Environment Act framework present the opportunity of gradual progress in both the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, the environmental principles are designed to influence government decision-making across departments. However, the recent environmental principles policy statement is insufficient to meaningfully drive the change needed for progress. The IES recently highlighted the changes needed to help the environmental principles deliver transformative change.

When it comes to long-term legally-binding targets, the four areas in which the targets will be set have all seen some progress brought about by the Act, but all four still need much greater protections to ensure positive environmental change.

2022: what comes next?

2021 was 'the year of the promise'. Many aspirations were put forward, even if they were not universally ambitious enough. Now, 2022 must be the 'year of delivery'. The role of environmental science will be threefold: to provide insights to support delivery, to scrutinise implementation to ensure positive environmental outcomes, and to keep an eye on natural systems and remain vigilant to the risk of unintended consequences.