Joseph Lewis
March 2021

How can the Environment Bill targets promote transformative change?

After a full year of lockdowns and other measures to tackle the global COVID-19 pandemic, the end may soon be in sight. As attention turns from managing the crisis to securing global economic recovery, it will be crucial to ensure the recovery is 'green', and that the opportunity is not missed to transform unsustainable systems of production and consumption embedded in our social and economic lives.

Last year, the IES began exploring transformative change in the COVID-19 recovery, and have been championing the cause wherever possible since. Recently, transformative change became a theme of our work ahead of the COP26 conference in November. At the same time, the UK Government is working to set long-term targets in line with the Environment Bill and the 25 Year Environment Plan. These long-term targets could play a key role in helping make transformative changes a reality. This will be a once in a generation chance to shape systems. 

Thus far, global recovery efforts are not on track to achieve this level of transformative change. In February, the Greenness of Stimulus Index found that significant amounts of the recovery funds from G20 countries may have adverse effects on nature.

Environmental improvement in the UK will be governed under a framework of different policy instruments, from the forthcoming Environmental Land Management Schemes and pilot for sustainable farming to the ongoing work to establish governing environmental principles and the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). If the Government wants to make the most of these policies, then it will be necessary to have a joined-up and cross-cutting plan of action, as well as effective monitoring of the right data to see that vision becomes reality.

How can the targets promote transformation?

The most important role of the long-term targets set by the Environment Bill is to legally bind the work of the Government to ensuring progress across four target areas: air quality, biodiversity, water, and resource efficiency and waste reduction. 

As set out in the Government’s initial timetable, much of the work to develop fully evidenced targets will be over the next year. A public consultation is scheduled for the end of 2021 and legislation is expected early in 2022. To be effective, the targets will need to appreciate the full extent of the natural systems involved and the interactions between them, evaluating real progress rather than atomistic indicators which fail to show the full picture.

That will be especially important in areas such as air quality, nature, and water, where targets are, perhaps by necessity, addressing symptoms of more complex problems which cut across these systems, and where the benefits of action may not be seen in one system alone. Nature restoration will be crucial to averting the ecological emergency, while nature-based solutions can also help us fight the climate crisis.

A target measuring the success of just one of these outputs would fail to capture mutual benefits, and would not transform the system as a whole. Over the coming months, the IES is holding a series of webinars on this crucial topic and ways to address climate change through natural systems, the first of which will be given by Evan Bowen-Jones from Kent Wildlife Trust on 7th April. 

There is a crucial opportunity across each of these natural systems to create lasting change. With the urgency of the recovery from COVID-19, the impetus of the imminent COP26 climate conference, and the shift in governance provoked by the UK’s exit from the European Union, there is a singular chance to re-imagine our systems of consumption and production. Achieving such a change will demand legal accountability which only the targets can provide, so they must be part of a strategic approach to addressing this transformation at a system level. Only then can we combat the climate crisis, avert ecological emergency, and avoid locking in complex system vulnerabilities.

The four questions the IES will be asking to keep the targets on track

  1. Are the targets as a whole designed to appreciate natural systems and the interactions between them, even where targets themselves focus on individual aspects?
  2. Do the targets help DEFRA utilise the 25 Year Environment Plan to create a vision for transformative change, and will the OEP be effectively placed to support a vision for transformative change?
  3. Do the targets and the action associated with them meet our ABCDE approach?
    • Is the vision behind the targets sufficiently ambitious?
    • Do they cover a suitably broad range of issues?
    • Has the Government taken a considerate approach to setting the targets?
    • Is there a deliberate plan for how these targets will be used to create transformative change?
    • Are the targets evidence-led?
  4. Will these targets align with international commitments, including the Sustainable Development Goals and the UK’s desires for COP26?

As part of our work to prepare for the COP26 climate conference in November, the IES is leading a conversation about transformation in the context of climate change. If you want to share your perspective on what transformative change means for your work, you can sign up to attend our panel event, join our COP26 Community, or get in touch to share your views.