UK Government publishes its 25 year plan for the environment

Environment Secretary Michael Gove pledges to “leave our environment in a better state than we found it”

“Ambitious project” sets out goals and targets for clean air, clean water, biodiversity, conservation, waste management, land management, flood risk, the marine environment, and climate change

February 14th 2018
The UK Government has published its long-awaited 25 year plan for the environment. Its intentions to produce such a plan were first announced in October 2015, in response to a number of recommendations from the Government’s Natural Capital Committee – see the ENA article “Defra responds to recommendations of Natural Capital Committee”. The plan was finally published by Defra (the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) on the 11th January 2018.

On its website, the Government says its 25 year plan “sets out our goals for improving the environment, within a generation, and leaving it in a better state than we found it. It details how we in government will work with communities and businesses to do this.” [1] The plan consists of a 151-page document accompanied by three appendices containing, firstly, a list of the UK’s current strategies on the environment; secondly, a list of the UK’s international agreements; and thirdly, a supplementary evidence report. A further document summarises the Government’s targets. The main document has been called a sister document to the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, which was published last October – see the ENA article “UK Government publishes ‘The Clean Growth Strategy'”.

“Creating a better place”

In her foreword, the PM points out that the UK’s departure from the EU will mean that “control of important areas of environmental policy will return to these shores.” She continues: “We will use this opportunity to strengthen and enhance the protections our countryside, rivers, coastline and wildlife habitats enjoy, and develop new methods of agricultural and fisheries support which put the environment first.” The Environment Agency’s motto of “creating a better place” is taken up by Michael Gove in his foreword to the document: “It is this Government’s ambition to leave our environment in a better state than we found it.” He goes on to summarise the Government’s aspirations: “We need to replenish depleted soil, plant trees, support wetlands and peatlands, rid seas and rivers of rubbish, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cleanse the air of pollutants, develop cleaner, sustainable energy, and protect threatened species and habitats.”

The scope of the Government’s 25 year plan covers all aspects of the environment. The introduction sets out its 25-year goals and includes an ambitious list of targets. “Using the natural capital framework set out by the Natural Capital Committee,” it says, “we have framed our goals for environmental improvement over the next 25 years around six primary goods and benefits offered by a healthy environment.” By adopting the Plan, the Government says, “we will achieve clean air; clean and plentiful water; thriving plants and wildlife; a reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought;” and “enhanced beauty, heritage, and engagement with the natural environment.” The sixth benefit it wants to achieve is a more sustainable and more efficient use of natural resources. The Government also says it will manage pressures on the environment by mitigating and adapting to climate change; minimising waste; managing exposure to chemicals; and enhancing biosecurity.

Goals and targets: Clean air, clean water

The introduction also sets out the means by which these goals will be achieved. For example, on clean air, the Government says it will achieve this by, firstly, meeting legally binding targets to reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants, which “should halve the effects of air pollution on health by 2030;” secondly, by ending the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040; and thirdly, by “maintaining the continuous improvement in industrial emissions by building on existing good practice and the successful regulatory framework.”

On clean and plentiful water, the Plan sets out four measures by which this goal will be achieved. The goal here is to improve “at least three quarters of our waters to be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable.” ‘Waters’ includes rivers, lakes, groundwater aquifers, estuaries and coastal waters, and the Plan says that the 75% target reflects the costs and benefits analysis provided by the current River Basin Management Plans. The ‘natural states’ of such waters are set out in international benchmarks and defined in statutory guidance to the Environment Agency, the body responsible for developing the River Basin Management Plans in consultation with local partners.

The first measure concerns water abstraction. The Plan seeks to reduce “the damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater, ensuring that by 2021 the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards increases from 82% to 90% for surface water bodies and from 72% to 77% for groundwater bodies.” The second measure concerns specially protected areas. The Plan aims to reach or exceed objectives “for rivers, lakes, coastal and ground waters that are specially protected, whether for biodiversity or drinking water as per our River Basin Management Plans.” The third measure concerns water companies and leakages. The Government says it supports OFWAT’s ambitions on leakage, “minimising the amount of water lost through leakage year on year, with water companies expected to reduce leakage by at least an average of 15% by 2025.” On recreational waters, the Plan seeks to minimise by 2030 “the harmful bacteria in our designated bathing waters.” The Government says it will continue improvements “to the cleanliness of our waters,” whilst ensuring that potential bathers are warned of any short-term pollution risks.

Goals and targets: “Thriving plants and wildlife”

On biodiversity, the Government makes the following pledge: “We will achieve a growing and resilient network of land, water and sea that is richer in plants and wildlife.” Three specific goals are concerned with threatened species, habitat, and woodland, including “taking action to recover threatened, iconic, or economically important species of animals, plants and fungi (such as bees and other pollinating insects), and where possible to prevent human-induced extinction or loss of known threatened species in England and the Overseas Territories.” On habitat, the goal is to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside the protected site network, “focusing on priority habitats as part of a wider set of land management changes providing extensive benefits.” Priority habitats are defined as “habitats of principal importance under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act.” The Plan says that more detailed targets for the restoration and creation of protected or priority habitats will be developed “as part of our post 2020 strategy for nature.” On woodland, the Plan reiterates the Government’s aspiration to increase woodland cover in England to 12% by 2060, which would involve planting 180,000 hectares by the end of 2042.

On freshwater, the goal is to restore “75% of our one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition, securing their wildlife value for the long term.” On the marine environment, the Plan sets out four general goals. The first is to reverse the loss of marine biodiversity and to restore it “where practicable.” The second is to increase the proportion of “protected and well-managed seas,” and to better manage existing protected sites. The third is to ensure that populations of key species are “sustainable with appropriate age structures,” and the fourth is to ensure that “seafloor habitats are productive and sufficiently extensive to support healthy, sustainable ecosystems.” The Plan includes specific targets for reducing marine pollution, as explained below.

In addition to the “six primary goods and benefits offered by a healthy environment,” the Plan also recognizes the need to manage the environmental pressures that are the results of human actions. Such pressures include biosecurity and the risks presented by invasive species – see the ENA article “Invasive Species – New laws and new initiatives”. The Plan pledges to enhance biosecurity “to protect our wildlife and livestock, and boost the resilience of plants and trees.” The goals here include “managing and reducing the impact of existing plant and animal diseases, lowering the risk of new ones and tackling invasive non-native species, working with industry to reduce the impact of endemic disease” and “reaching the detailed goals to be set out in the Tree Health Resilience Plan of 2018.” Looking ahead, the goals also include “ensuring strong biosecurity protection at our borders, drawing on the opportunities leaving the EU provides.”

Goals and targets: Flooding and drought

On flooding, drought and coastal erosion, the introduction sets out a wish list of aspirations that “will reduce the risk of harm to people, the environment and the economy from natural hazards.” The goals cover access to information, collaboration in risk management, planning for development, planning for drought, and boosting resilience. The actions are summarized as follows:

• ensuring that people “are able to access the information they need to assess any risks to their lives and livelihoods, health and prosperity posed by flooding and coastal erosion;”
• “bringing the public, private and third sectors together to work with communities and individuals to reduce the risk of harm;”
• “making sure that decisions on land use, including development, reflect the level of current and future flood risk;”
• “ensuring interruptions to water supplies are minimised during prolonged dry weather and drought;” and
• “boosting the long-term resilience of our homes, businesses and infrastructure.”

Goals and targets: Conservation and engagement with the natural environment

The Plan pledges to “conserve and enhance the beauty of our natural environment, and make sure it can be enjoyed, used by, and cared for by everyone.” The goals cover conservation, accessibility to green spaces, and social engagement, with the actions summarised as follows:

• “safeguarding and enhancing the beauty of our natural scenery and improving its environmental value while being sensitive to considerations of its heritage;”
• ensuring that there are “high quality, accessible, natural spaces close to where people live and work, particularly in urban areas,” and “encouraging more people to spend time in them to benefit their health and well-being;” and
• “focusing on increasing action to improve the environment from all sectors of society.”

Goals and targets: Resources and sustainability

The Government says it will ensure that natural resources are used more sustainably and efficiently, and that food is produced profitably as well as sustainably. It wants to increase the long-term supply of English-grown timber by supporting larger scale woodland creation. It also wants to ensure that “all fish stocks are recovered to and maintained at levels that can produce their maximum sustainable yield.” As for specific targets, the Plan proposes to “maximise the value and benefits we get from our resources, doubling resource productivity by 2050.” Resource productivity is defined as a measure of the value (in terms of GDP) “we generate per unit of raw materials we use in the economy.” The Government also says it wants to see improvements in approaches to soil management, with the aspiration that by 2030 “all of England’s soils will be managed sustainably.” It plans to use “natural capital thinking” to develop appropriate soil metrics and management approaches. [2]

Achieving the goals

Having set out the Government’s 25-year goals and targets in the introduction, the Plan moves on to discuss the specific plans, proposals and activities that will achieve these aims. Section One of the document contains chapters on six key areas identified by the Government as the foci for action, as follows:

• “using and managing land sustainably,”
• “recovering nature and enhancing the beauty of landscapes,”
• “connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing,”
• “increasing resource efficiency and reducing pollution and waste,”
• “securing clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans,” and
• “protecting and improving our global environment.”

Sustainable land management

Moving on to details, Chapter One outlines proposals under the general heading of managing land sustainably. These cover five areas: development, farming, soil, woodland, and flood risk. On development, the Plan talks about “embedding an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure.” On farming, the Plan sets out ways of “improving how we manage and incentivise land management.” These include the design and delivery of a new environmental land management system; introducing new farming rules for water abstraction; working with farmers to use fertilisers efficiently; and “protecting crops while reducing the environmental impact of pesticides.” On soil, under the general heading of “improving soil health and restoring and protecting our peatlands,” the Government wants to develop better information on soil health and to restore vulnerable peatlands, with the goal of ending peat use in horticultural products by 2030. On woodland, under the general heading of “maximising its many benefits,” the Plan expresses support for larger scale woodland creation, including the development of a new “Northern Forest,” and proposes to appoint a national “Tree Champion.” Finally, on flood risk and coastal erosion, the Government plans to expand the use of natural flood management solutions, to put in place more sustainable drainage systems, and to make ‘at-risk’ properties more resilient to flooding.

“Recovering nature”

Chapter Two is devoted to plans for “recovering nature and enhancing the beauty of landscapes.” These cover three areas. The first is nature protection and recovery, which lists five aims, the first of which, “publishing a strategy for nature,” is currently a plan to produce a plan. Further aims are as follows: developing a “Nature Recovery Network”; providing opportunities for the reintroduction of native species; “exploring how to give individuals the chance to deliver lasting conservation”; and “improving biosecurity to protect and conserve nature”. The second area is the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty, and here the Government proposes to conduct a review of National Parks and AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty). The third area is “respecting nature in how we use water,” and here the plans overlap with the plans to reform farming, mentioned above. As well as “reforming our approach to water abstraction,” the Government wants to increase water supply and to provide incentives for greater water efficiency and less personal use.

“Connecting people with the environment”

The plans in Chapter Three focus on the health benefits of connecting people with the environment. These cover four areas. The first is titled “helping people improve their health and wellbeing by using green spaces.” Here, as well as the general aim of promoting the health benefits of the natural environment, the Plan sets out a specific aim of “considering how environmental therapies could be delivered through mental health services.” The second area is children, which encompasses the general aim of “encouraging children to be close to nature, in and out of school.” The Government wants to help primary schools create nature-friendly grounds, and to support “more pupil contact with local natural spaces.” The third area is “greening our towns and cities,” and the aims here are to create more green infrastructure and to plant more trees in and around towns and cities. The fourth area is a campaign “to see more people from all backgrounds involved in projects to improve the natural world.” The Government says it will make 2019 a year of action for the environment, “putting children and young people at its heart,” and helping them to engage with nature. The Year of Green Action “will provide a focal-point for organisations that run environmental projects, and will encourage wider participation.”

Minimising waste and reducing pollution

Chapter Four includes plans to increase resource efficiency, reduce waste, and reduce pollution. As regards waste management, the overriding aim is to maximise resource efficiency and to minimise the environmental impacts when a resource reaches its “end of life”. Here, one of the Government’s specific targets is to achieve “zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042,” with ‘avoidable’ defined in the introduction as “what is Technically, Environmentally and Economically Practicable.” The introduction also states that the Government “will work towards our ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050” (i.e., all waste including plastic waste), with the goal of “significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land.” The Government also pledges to meet all existing waste targets, “including those on landfill, reuse and recycling,” and to develop “ambitious new future targets and milestones.” Further aims are to reduce food supply chain emissions and waste; to improve the management of residual waste; to reduce litter and littering; to crack down on fly-tippers and waste criminals; and to reduce the impact of wastewater. The introduction specifies the target of “seeking to eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites over the lifetime of this Plan, prioritising those of highest risk,” whilst also “delivering a substantial reduction in litter and littering behaviour.”

Moving on to pollution, two of the plans here are aspirations. These are the intentions to publish a Clean Air Strategy and to publish a Chemicals Strategy. Further plans to reduce pollution consist of curbing emissions from combustion plants and generators, “minimising the risk of chemical contamination in our water,” and “ensuring we continue to maintain clean recreational waters and warning about temporary pollution.” In the introduction, the Government says it will ensure that “chemicals are safely used and managed” and that “the levels of harmful chemicals entering the environment (including through agriculture) are significantly reduced.” Four specific targets are set out here, with the Government stating it will achieve these ambitions by:

• “seeking in particular to eliminate the use of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) by 2025, in line with our commitments under the Stockholm Convention;”
• “reducing land-based emissions of mercury to air and water by 50% by 2030;”
• “substantially increasing the amount of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) material being destroyed or irreversibly transformed by 2030, to make sure there are negligible emissions to the environment;” and
• “fulfilling our commitments under the Stockholm Convention as outlined in the UK’s most recent National Implementation Plan.”

The marine environment

The maintenance of unpolluted waters overlaps with Chapter Five and the marine environment, where the overriding aim is to secure “clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans.” The main plan here is to introduce a sustainable fisheries policy “as we leave the Common Fisheries Policy.” The policy will aim to achieve “good environmental status in our seas while allowing marine industries to thrive.” As mentioned above, the Government says it will work towards the elimination of all avoidable waste by 2050, and the elimination of avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042, with the goal of “significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land.”

Climate change and the global environment

Under the general heading of “protecting and improving our global environment” in Chapter Six, the Plan singles out three areas for specific focus. The first is “providing international leadership and leading by example” – firstly by tackling climate change, and secondly by protecting and improving international biodiversity. The second area is “helping developing nations protect and improve the environment” – firstly by providing assistance and supporting disaster planning, and secondly by supporting and protecting international forests and sustainable global agriculture. The third area is titled “leaving a lighter footprint on the global environment.” The aims here are to enhance sustainability, to protect and manage risks from hazards, and to support zero-deforestation supply chains.

In the introduction, the Government says it will take “all possible action to mitigate climate change, while adapting to reduce its impact.” Three commitments are set out here: firstly, “to continue to cut greenhouse gas emissions including from land use, land use change, the agriculture and waste sectors, and the use of fluorinated gases;” secondly, “to ensure that all policies, programmes, and investment decisions take into account the possible extent of climate change this century;” and thirdly, “to implement a sustainable and effective second National Adaptation Programme.” As for specific targets, the Government says that “the UK Climate Change Act 2008 commits us to reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 when compared to 1990 levels.”

“Putting the Plan into practice”

Section Two of the document is titled “Putting the Plan into practice”. On general principles, the Government says it will consult on “setting up a new independent body to hold government to account and a new set of environmental principles to underpin policy-making.” The Plan also sets out the following commitments:

• “to develop a set of metrics to assess progress towards our 25-year goals;”
• “to refresh the 25 Year Environment Plan regularly to ensure that collectively we are focusing on the right priorities, using the latest evidence, and delivering better value for money;”
• “to strengthen leadership and delivery through better local planning, more effective partnerships, and learning from our four pioneer projects;” [3]
• “to establish a new green business council and explore the potential for a natural environment impact fund;” and
• “to work closely with a large range of stakeholders over the coming year to identify their contribution to the goals set out in this Plan.”

In the introduction to the Plan, the Government states: “This Plan is a living blueprint for the environment covering the next quarter of a century. It is an ambitious project, made even more so by our use of a natural capital approach, a world first.” However, with the Government currently embroiled in the aftermath of the EU referendum, achieving these ambitions may not be very high on its list of priorities.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Braunton Burrows, North Devon. © Copyright Lewis Clarke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The caption says: “Braunton Burrows is designated nationally and internationally for its biodiversity, being an SSSI, Special Area of Conservation (SAC), and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.” This reserve is the location for one of the Government’s four pioneer projects, in this case demonstrating the applicability of a natural capital approach to the coastal environment.

Notes

[1] A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, available as a PDF document from GOV.UK publications.
[2] On the concept of natural capital, see the ENA article “Assessing the Value of ‘Natural Capital'”.
[3] The four pioneer projects are: the Cumbria Catchment Pioneer, led by the Environment Agency (using a natural capital approach to the management of river catchments); the North Devon Landscape Pioneer, led by Natural England (the use of natural capital in determining environmental priorities in the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve); the Greater Manchester Urban Pioneer, led by the Environment Agency (the use of environmental enhancements in improving well-being); and the Marine Pioneer, led by the Marine Management Organisation (applying a natural capital approach to the marine environment, based on a study of two separate coastal areas – the North Devon Biosphere Reserve and the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB). The four pioneer projects started in 2016.

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