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The UK Government has announced that it will not be issuing environmental targets by the 31 October 2022 deadline in the Environment Act 2021 (the Act). The targets were subject to consultation between March and June 2022, prompting over 180,000 responses including petitions.

The announcement came in a written ministerial statement to both Houses of Parliament made on 28 October 2022. The reason for the delay was cited as difficulty dealing with the volume of responses despite four months having elapsed since the consultation closed.

The consultation originally opened in March and was extended in May following criticism that the evidence underlying the proposed new targets had not been published alongside the consultation document. It closed on 27 June 2022.

What targets are expected?

The Act requires the Government to set at least one long-term target of at least 15 years for each of air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction, plus targets for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and species abundance. Once set, the targets are to be periodically reviewed to assess whether meeting them would significantly improve the natural environment.

In the consultation, the Government included additional targets on biodiversity, water, the marine environment and woodland cover.

How were the draft targets received?

The proposed targets came in for much criticism. The lack of an overarching water quality target was a bone of contention and another was the setting of a target for particulates (PM2.5) at twice the level recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It was pointed out that the method for setting the species abundance target, rather than guarantee any improvement on the current position, could allow further decline.

In its comments, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) suggested more clarity was necessary on how the proposed targets will work together with existing commitments under national legislation and international commitments. The OEP also suggested that the targets and other commitments important for achieving Government environmental long-term policy goals should be mapped into a clear hierarchy and taxonomy.

Will the targets impact business?

The consultation paper said the Government expects the private sector to be involved in helping to meet the targets, raising at least £500 million in private finance for nature’s recovery every year by 2027, to more than £1 billion a year by 2030.

When can legislation now be expected?

Recently appointed Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey, promised in her ministerial statement that the Government would continue to work at pace in order to introduce the secondary legislation needed to formally adopt the targets "as soon as practicable".  No firm date was given.

The OEP has so far commented that the delay is 'regrettable'. It has powers to formally investigate DEFRA for failure to comply with its environmental law obligations, which it may choose to use if legislation does not materialise shortly.

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Fiona Sawyer

Professional Support Lawyer, London

Fiona Sawyer