5 things you need to know about the new Environment Act

From polluted rivers to dirty air, our environment needs urgent attention. Is the new Environment Act good enough to save and restore nature?
  Published:  19 Nov 2021    |      Last updated:  26 Aug 2022    |      4 minute read

The new Environment Act should give the UK a fresh opportunity to set a new standard of legislation to protect our environment and start to reverse some of the devastation we’ve caused.

We started campaigning for a strong new environment law five years ago. Now it’s here – is it any good? Here are 5 things you need to know about the Environment Act

1. What exactly is the Environment Act and why do we need it?

The Environment Act is the biggest UK environmental law in over a decade. Its aim is to ensure our natural world is still protected now that the UK has left the EU, and set out how the government will better protect and restore the environment in the future.
The Act covers a whole load of big environmental issues, like protecting wildlife, improving air quality, and reducing waste.

We’ve been calling for improvements to this law for years. And we’ve seen some useful changes. The final law requires government to try and stop species decline in the UK, makes efforts to stop companies filling our waterways with sewage or cutting down trees illegally, and creates a route for communities to take legal action when laws aren’t followed in future. None of these things were guaranteed when we started. But there's still a lot to worry us. 

2. The “world-leading environmental watchdog” isn’t good enough

A key feature of the Act is the introduction of the Office for Environmental Protections (OEP), which the government promised would be a  “‘world leading environmental watchdog”. The OEP is meant to make sure the government and other public bodies are accountable for what they do or don’t do to protect the environment, and help communities complain if environmental laws aren’t followed. 

The Environment Act should have guaranteed its independence and the strength to make sure those who ignore environmental laws are punished. But it didn’t go quite far enough.

Our work helped persuade government to give the courts the powers to properly punish those who don’t play by the rules. And it convinced ministers to promise that they won’t tell the OEP to look the other way if they ignore environmental laws in future. But the Act still lets government tell the watchdog what to do, and leaves them in charge of it’s budget and board.  We’ll be watching carefully to make sure this watchdog doesn’t become a lapdog. 

3. It's a missed opportunity on plastics

The new environment law implements the Resources and Waste Strategy for England, the ambition of which is to eliminate avoidable waste by 2050.

The Act sets out powers to introduce a deposit return scheme and charges for all single use items, makes recycling collections in England more consistent, and cracks down on illegal dumping. 

These are welcome measures – but the new environment law is too focused on recycling. It doesn’t fix the problems caused by the most environmentally damaging forms of waste – like the plastics shed from vehicle tyres or our clothes via reduction and reuse. It encourages government to tackle plastics through a the one-item-at-a-time approach (like the plan to start with just wet wipes and picnic items). It’s just not fast enough.  

This law should've guaranteed a target to reduce all types of plastic pollution and included less visible ones, like microplastics. Despite their small size, they’re estimated to make up over half of the UK’s plastic pollution. Without an overarching plastic reduction target  plastic fragments will continue to be swallowed by fish, seabirds and other animals, and in turn enter the human food chain. 

This law requires government to set at least one target to cut waste and use resources better by the end of 2022. Let’s make sure they set a plastics reduction target and take the Prime Minister’s advice: “recycling doesn’t work” and “we've all got to cut down our use of plastic”.

4. Our appalling air quality is being addressed too little too late

Air pollution contributes to up to 36,000 early deaths a year. Campaigners like Rosamund, the mum of 9-year-old Ella Kissi- Debrah, on whose tragic early death a coroner concluded:  “Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution”, have been campaigning to get decent air pollution targets in the new law.

The government plans to meet its target on the concentration of the most health-damaging fine Particulate Matter air pollution not till 2040, but Rosamund, Friends of the Earth and others say this must be met by 2030 at the latest. And even that must now be just an interim target, as the World Health Organisation has recently updated its guidelines, which need to be met as soon as possible.

Without tougher air pollution targets more young lungs will suffer with unacceptably bad air, as well as putting people at more risk of strokes, heart attacks and lung cancer.

5. There are a lot of loopholes

For every positive commitment in this new law, there's a loophole that needs fixing. Examples include:

  • A new requirement for companies to stop deforestation in their supply chains only targets those who cut down trees illegally, not those contributing to the legal deforestation of our rainforests.
  • A new duty for ministers to consider how their policies could damage or better support the environment doesn’t apply to the treasury of the Ministry of Defence.
  • The government won’t need to deliver on the targets set in 2022 for a massive 15 years.

This is an environment law of two halves – with ambitious potential but weak accountability. It could have guaranteed a brighter future for nature in the UK and beyond, but instead it still contains the potential to let our environmental laws go backwards, and future governments weasel out of action.