DEFRA is currently consulting on proposals for a series of legally-binding, long-term environmental targets in England. In accordance with the Environment Act 2021 (the “Act”), the Secretary of State must set at least one long-term target relating to air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction, particulate matter and species abundance.
Originally, the consultation was intended to run until 11 May 2022. Although the consultation was launched in mid-March, until recently DEFRA had failed to publish the evidential basis for the targets proposed. Following publication of the impact assessment reports and the detailed evidence reports, the consultation will instead close on 27 June 2022.
Responses may be submitted online here. Subject to the consultation outcome, relevant statutory instruments containing the targets are required to be laid before parliament by 31 October 2022, coming into force immediately.
- Biodiversity on land
Species abundance – to halt the decline in species abundance (i.e. the population of each species) by 2030 and then increase species abundance by at least 10% by 2042, compared to 2030 levels.
Species extinction – to improve the England-level GB Red List Index for species extinction risk by 2042, compared to 2022 levels. Red lists are a globally recognised way of identifying the threat of extinction to species and the GB Red List Index puts a numerical level on the extinction risk for several species groups
Wildlife-rich habitats – to create or restore in excess of 500,000 hectares of a range of wildlife-rich habitats outside protected sites by 2042, compared to 2022 levels.
- Biodiversity in the sea
DEFRA is proposing to put 70% of the designated features in the Marine Protected Areas network (a network spanning 40% of English waters) in favourable condition by 2042, with the remainder in recovering condition, and additional reporting on changes in individual feature condition.
- Water quality and availability
Abandoned metal mines target – to reduce the length of rivers and estuaries polluted by target substances from abandoned mines by 50% by 2037 against a baseline of around 1,500km.
Nutrient targets - to address the two principal sources of nutrient pollution by 2037 by:
reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture to the water environment by at least 40% by 2037 against a 2018 baseline; and
reducing phosphorus loadings from treated wastewater by 80% by 2037 against a 2020 baseline.
Water demand – to reduce the use of public water supply in England per head of population by 20% by 2037 against a 2019/20 baseline.
- Air quality & fine particulate matter
Annual Mean Concentration Target – a target of 10 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic metre (µg m-3) to be met across England by 2040.
Population Exposure Reduction Target – a 35% reduction in population exposure to fine particulate matter by 2040 (compared to a base year of 2018).
- Woodland cover
DEFRA is proposing to increase tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% to 17.5% of total land area in England by 2050.
- Resource efficiency and waste reduction
DEFRA is proposing to reduce the mass of residual waste (excluding major mineral wastes) per capita by 50% by 2042 from 2019 levels. It is proposed that this will be measured as a reduction from the 2019 level, which is estimated to be approximately 560 kg per capita.
The residual waste per capita figure will be calculated by totalling the amount of waste sent to landfill, waste put through incineration (including energy from waste incineration), waste sent oversea for energy recovery and waste used in energy recovery for transport fuel, and then dividing this total by the population.
Comment on the targets
The delay in the legislative progress of what is now the Act had given many stakeholders time to consider possible targets in light of the significant coverage of air quality issues, biodiversity loss and water quality concerns in recent years. In that context, while the targets are purposefully long term and not intended to be viewed in isolation from other proposals and policies some may consider the absence, in particular, of more stringent particulate matter targets and wider water quality objectives as points to raise in consultation responses.
The recent publication of the evidential basis for the targets may address some of the perceived gaps in the targets. For example, DEFRA have provided more information for removing major mineral waste from the scope of their waste reduction targets and have committed to the setting of future targets on major mineral waste following the introduction of mandatory digital waste tracking which will digitally capture data on waste movement. In other areas, however, the publication of the evidential basis identifies gaps in the targets. The biodiversity evidence packs reveal that bees, fish and fungi will not be measure in the proposed species abundance indicator despite the important role that all three play in their respective ecosystems.
If the proposed targets are adopted, the Secretary of State would satisfy its obligations to set a long-term target in respect of water, resource efficiency and waste reduction, biodiversity and particulate matter. However, the air quality targets set out in the consultation document relate exclusively to particular matter, but the Act is clear the setting of particulate matter targets will not discharge the duty to set a separate long-term air quality target.
The importance of air quality targets had been illuminated following the inquest into the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah who, in 2013, died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution. On 20 April 2021, the Assistant Coroner for Inner London, Philip Barlow, issued a Prevention of Future Deaths Report to which the Government have responded. The noted findings in respect of Ella’s death by Mr Barlow were “Air pollution was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbations of her asthma. During the course of her illness between 2010 and 2013 she was exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in excess of World Health Organization Guidelines. The principal source of her exposure was traffic emissions. During this period there was a recognized failure to reduce the level of nitrogen dioxide to within the limits set by EU and domestic law which possibly contributed to her death”. Mr Barlow further stated “The national limits for Particulate Matter are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines. The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for Particulate Matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”
In September 2021, prior to the present consultation, the WHO published its Air Quality guidelines which set an annual mean PM2.5 concentration limit of 5 µg/m3 (previously 10 µg/m3). The proposed target under the Act, for achievement in 18 years’ time, does not appear to accord with present WHO guidelines.
Comment on procedures supplementing the targets
DEFRA has committed to conduct its first Significant Improvement Test – a test designed to assess whether meeting the targets set under the Act’s framework would significant improve England’s natural environment – and lay a report before Parliament by 31 January 2023, the same deadline for the first review of its Environmental Improvement Plan (“EIP”). If pursued, the long-term targets set out in the consultation will be supplemented by interim targets, of up to 5 years in duration, in the EIP.
The consultation document suggests that both the government and the newly formed independent Office for Environmental Protection will report annually on progress towards meeting the long-term targets. It is not clear, on the face of this consultation document, how any conflict between these two reports will be handled.