On 16 December 2022, DEFRA issued its consultation response setting out the final form of the environmental targets required by section 1 of the Environment Act 2021. The targets were due to be adopted on 31st October 2022 but delayed to allow time to deal with a large volume of responses to consultation (181,003 if individual petition signatures and campaign responses are included). Critics will be underwhelmed with the changes.
The overall outcome
DEFRA acknowledged the strong public support to drive change as fast and as ambitiously as possible. The vast majority of views (90% plus) on biodiversity, Marine Protected Areas, water, waste, woodland cover and air quality targets called for higher levels of ambition. Despite this, DEFRA has resisted making any of the targets more stringent than it had proposed, citing the need for the targets to be achievable. This requirement is baked into section 1 of the Act, where the DEFRA Secretary of State must be satisfied the target can be met.
Many of the other deadlines have now also slid back a year to 2038 given they must be at least 15 years away.
Targets by topic
The final targets themselves are included in the text box.
- A whopping 99% of respondents to the consultation disagreed with the ambition level of only a 10% increase in long-term species abundance. Nevertheless no change has been made to the final target. DEFRA says a higher level of ambition is not supported by its extensive evidence base. Instead it has included 124 additional species in its indicator species list to include previously underrepresented groups like freshwater and estuarine fish and bumblebees.
- A clarification has been made to prevent backsliding on long term biodiversity before 2030 (where the Office for Environmental Protection had complained the uncertainty this caused to the level of the target was potentially illegal, but DEFRA says this was never its intent.) DEFRA has declined to include an additional target for restoration of protected areas such as SSSIs.
- On species extinction, 92% of respondents disagreed with the level of ambition for the target (improvement between 2022 and 2042 without specifying how much). DEFRA points out that its proposed target indicator measures the extinction risk of 8,259 species and that changes in an extinction risk category require significant improvements. Therefore, to achieve any modest improvement in the overall target the indicator would need to show significant reductions in extinction threat.
- Again, 91% disagreed with the low level of ambition of the original MPA target. DEFRA has stood by the target of having 70% (currently 44%) of MPAs in a favourable condition by 2042 and the remainder in a recovering condition, on the basis it aligns with the 25 Year Environment Plan. The Plan is however due for renewal in January 2023 and is itself criticised as unambitious. The additional requirement to report on changes in the condition of individual features has been dropped on the basis that this will need to be monitored anyway to determine which features are in a recovering condition.
- Many respondents had asked for the addition of an overall target on water quality. DEFRA merely points to the existing targets under the Water Framework Directive to justify not including one.
- On pollution from abandoned mines, 91% wanted a more ambitious target. DEFRA is evangelical in the response about the potential benefits in reducing the loading of metal from mines getting into in English rivers and flowing into the sea, but points out that its target would already require a 10-fold increase in the number of projects operated by the current Water and Abandoned Metal Mines Programme, and more is not feasible due to the additional funding required, supply chain constraints and long lead-in times.
- There were calls to include targets for other pollutants from wastewater treatment, not only phosphorous. These were resisted on the basis that phosphorous is the most common reason for water bodies to fail the Water Framework Directive targets and DEFRA also points to other measures including its Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan and forthcoming legislation on nutrient neutrality (with regard to nitrogen pollution).
- The target to reduce water usage of 20% per person was criticised for not taking account of a population rise. Some suggested broadening the scope to control all water abstracted from the environment, not just for person use. Again, this has been rejected and no changes made to the target as originally proposed.
- The air pollution concentration target for small particulates remains at half the level of ambition recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). DEFRA says that its modelling shows that its 10 µg per m3 level cannot be met throughout England until 2040. It says that the measures required to bring forward the deadline to 2030 (eg on burning solid fuels and reducing traffic emissions) would disproportionately affect individuals and small business. It also says that evidence shows that high PM2.5 levels experienced in 2018 in parts of England came not from man-made UK but natural sources, emissions from Europe and from shipping, making it impossible to meet the target level of 5µg per m3 recommended by the WHO.
- No clear explanation is given in the response document to why the original target of expanding woodland to cover 17.5% of land has been cut down to 16.5%.
- On the waste target the 2019 starting point of 560kg for per capita residual waste reduction was found to be an underestimate based on new data and so this has been raised to 574kg.
The Government will now lay statutory instruments to formally set the targets. When the new Environmental Improvement Plan is published in January 2023 it is to include interim targets: milestones to meeting the full long term targets.
The final targets
Key: Green – more stringent now; Red – more lenient than last time; Black – unchanged