The UK's Environment Bill
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
The UK government has already taken action to address climate change by setting the target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, leading the way among major economies as the first to do so. As the climate crisis goes beyond greenhouse gas emissions, the Environment Bill will not only help deliver this net zero target, but will also focus on managing the impact of human activity on the environment.
The Bill is 251 pages long and undergoes semi-regular changes and updates, therefore, this guide will simplify the key elements of the Bill. We will go through the aims of the Bill, what it includes, criticisms the Bill has received, the history of the Bill and what happens next with regard to its development and progression through parliament.
What is the UK Environment Bill?
The Environment Bill is part of a new legal framework for environment protection in the UK. The new legal framework is required because previous environment protection laws came from Brussels, and now that the UK has left the EU (Brexit), EU bodies no longer monitor and enforce these laws in the UK. The Environment Bill is a pivotal opportunity for the UK to lay down a tailored approach to UK action on the climate and environmental crisis, delivering the Government's goal of a ‘Green Brexit’.
The aims & what the Bill includes
The aims of the UK Environment Bill are to:
Improve air quality
Improve water quality
Restore and enhance green spaces
Reduce and better manage waste
In October 2020, the UK took measures to reduce the volume of national plastic waste by introducing a restriction on the supply of plastic straws, plastic stem cotton buds, and hot drink stirrers. To further reduce the volume of waste the country produces, the resource and waste measures that are introduced in the Bill are intended to help move the UK economy away from the ‘take, make, use, throw’ system it currently follows, towards a more circular economic model.
(You can read our guide on the Circular Economy here)
To make it easier for consumers to reduce their personal waste, the Bill contains the power to introduce clear product labelling. The product labelling will include information that will enable consumers to identify products that are more durable, reparable, recyclable, and inform them of how to appropriately dispose of used products.
The most damaging pollutant to human health is fine particulate matter, which is currently at high concentrations across many cities across the UK. As such, public health benefits will be delivered by the Bill, with measures that will address air pollution - ensuring we have cleaner air to breathe. At least two air quality targets have to be set by October 2022.
The Bill will also establish a new public body - the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - which will have the principal objective of contributing to environmental protection. The OEP will hold the government to account on its environmental commitments, help improve environmental governance and ensure environmental laws are complied with. However, the OEP cannot exist as a legal entity until the Bill is passed.
What criticisms has the Environment Bill received?
The members of the OEP will be appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. MPs have criticised this as boards that are appointed and structured in this way are not independent enough from the government to truly hold the government to account.
Greener UK, a coalition of 12 major environmental organisations, share the same criticisms and state that “considered as a whole, the bill does not do what has been promised: gold standard legislation, showing leadership for responding to the environmental crisis, and a world leading watchdog (OEP)”.
Also, within the Bill, it is proposed that there will be a ban on exporting plastic to developing countries. However, the charity and think tank Green Alliance stated that the UK already has this power and obligation to use this power under the Basel Convention. The Basel Convention is an international treaty that was designed to prevent the transfer of waste from developed to less developed nations.
History of the Environment Bill & what happens next?
The Bill was announced in July 2018 but was abandoned due to the then on-going parliamentary difficulties over Brexit. It was then introduced in October 2019, then re-introduced for its first reading in January 2020 following the late 2019 general election.
The way that Bills get passed through parliament is a lengthy and complex process, however the image below depicts simply what stages have been completed and what stage the Environment Bill is currently at. The Bill reached the committee stage at the House of Lords on 10th March 2020, and finally progressed from this stage on 14th July 2021. The Bill has not been able to progress from the committee stage for such a long time owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once the Bill has passed through the House of Lords, it goes back to the House of Commons whereby MP’s may disagree with amendments or share any further proposals, this process can go on between the Lords and Commons until both sides are happy. When this process is finished, the Bill is lastly approved by the Queen (Royal Assent). The Bill can go between the Commons and Lords for a long time, there is no time constraint on this, therefore a big concern is that by the time the Bill makes it to Royal Assent, it will be too late. It will be too late for the UK to make true, meaningful action against the climate and environmental crisis.
The Environmental Bill is complex and has numerous criticisms, however there is a unanimous agreement that it is critical that the Environment Bill gets signed into law. This is in order for the government to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and become one of the world leaders in environmental governance.
For some further reading on the Environment Bill, check out the following resources:
https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2593 link to the progress of the Bill via the Parliamentary site
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/environment-bill-2020 - documents related to the Environmental Bill
https://www.iema.net/resources/reading-room/2020/09/15/the-environment-bill-background-content-and-passage-through-uk-parliament - IEMA Environmental Bill guide
For more resources on environmental issues, head to our dedicated Climate Crisis section.
Edited by Caoimhe Glover