The Environment Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 30 January 2020. The bill’s progress through the Commons was paused in March 2020 during committee stage because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Committee stage subsequently resumed and was completed in November 2020. The most recent stage in the House of Commons was the first day of report stage on 26 January 2021.
The bill includes various environmental protection measures, including:
- The establishment of new environmental principles and legally binding targets following the UK’s departure from the EU. A draft policy statement on these new environmental principles was published in March 2021 for consultation.
- The creation of a new environmental standards regulator in England, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). The Government has said the OEP will be launched on an interim basis in July 2021 before it is formal establishment under the bill.
- Measures intended to reduce non-recyclable waste, including the introduction of a deposit return scheme and an extended producer responsibility for packaging.
- Measures intended to improve water quality.
The House of Commons passed a carry-over motion in January 2021, enabling the bill to continue into the next session. Speaking in support of this motion, Rebecca Pow, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told the House of Commons the Government intended for the next stages of the bill to resume in the early part of the new session. She also told MPs that the Government would ensure the bill received royal assent by the autumn of 2021.
In February 2021, Sir Bernard Jenkin, chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, wrote to the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, calling on the Government to prioritise the passing of several pieces of legislation, including the Environment Bill. Sir Bernard argued delays in passing the Environment Bill had resulted in a “gap in environmental governance following the end of the transition period”.
The Environment Bill would require the secretary of state to set new air quality standards and increase the powers of local government to limit air pollution. In December 2020, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, told the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that the Government would make sure it set targets that were “meaningful, but also right and deliverable”. He told the committee that the Government would consult on these new targets in 2021.
In February 2021, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended the Government set specific targets for reducing air pollution. This included targets for reducing manmade fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air, which is produced predominantly from car exhaust pipes. The committee argued the Government’s proposed restrictions in the Environment Bill would not be in line with the PM2.5 reduction set by the World Health Organisation’s target for reducing the concentration of PM2.5 in the air. In its response to the committee, the Government argued the Environment Bill would place a duty on the secretary of state to set targets reducing air pollutants, including PM2.5. The Government also said that enforcing these targets would be part of the new Office for Environmental Protection’s remit.
COP26 and UK carbon emissions
The UK is set to host the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021. This had originally been scheduled for 2020 but was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The December 2019 Queen’s Speech included a commitment that the UK would ask countries attending this summit to match the UK’s 2050 net zero target. In March 2021, Alok Sharma, the COP26 President-Designate, said the UK would be asking countries to commit to ambitious early targets for cutting emissions by 2030, to meet their ultimate net zero targets.
On 20 April 2021, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the UK would cut carbon emissions by 78 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2035. The Government has said reaching this new target would bring the UK more than three-quarters of the way to achieving its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It also said this target would be included in the UK’s sixth carbon budget. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee chair, Philip Dunne, welcomed the announcement of the new 2035 target. However, he noted the UK was not on track to meet the previous targets set in its fourth and fifth carbon budgets.
Green industrial revolution
The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election included a commitment to increase funding for schemes that combated climate change and protected the environment. Specifically, it said the Treasury would provide increased investment in research and development and decarbonisation schemes.
In his March 2021 budget, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the creation of a new infrastructure bank. Mr Sunak said the bank’s role would include supporting projects that would enable the UK to meet its net zero target. He also announced that the remit of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee would be expanded to consider “environmental sustainability and the transition to net zero” when making decisions on monetary policy.
In late 2020, the Government published two policy papers on plans intended to further support the decarbonisation of the UK economy:
- The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution included an announcement that the end date for the sale of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles would be brought forward from 2035 to 2030.
- The energy white paper included proposals to increase investment in low-carbon energy sources such as offshore wind, hydrogen and nuclear energy. It also included measures intended to improve the energy efficiency of homes and to make changes to the energy market.
In the energy white paper, the Government said it would introduce legislation to:
- Establish a legal definition of electricity storage. This follows a consultation on the regulation of electricity storage conducted by Ofgem in 2019. Ofgem has said creating a legal definition would clarify licensing conditions and thereby support the expansion of electricity storage.
- Allow Ofgem to open the onshore electricity transmission network to competitive tendering.
- Regulate the heat networks (also known as district heating). These are networks of buildings heated by pipes carrying hot water from a central source. The white paper says this new regulatory regime would increase the protections in place for consumers and reduce carbon emissions.
In March 2021, the Government also published its industrial decarbonisation strategy. This included measures intended to:
- Encourage investment in low-carbon industry.
- Enable energy customers to more easily switch to low-carbon energy producers.
- Support the development of new low-carbon technology such as carbon capture and storage.
The Government’s proposals have been criticised by the Opposition, which has argued that the measures were lacking ambition. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee welcomed the measures outlined in the Government’s ten point plan. However, the committee argued the measures did not go far enough. It recommended the Government should ensure that its net zero target and its other environmental targets should be considered as part of all decisions on infrastructure spending. Further information on the Government’s proposals for reducing carbon emissions is provided in the House of Lords Library In Focus article ‘Net zero and integrated policymaking’.
The Government stated in its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution that it will publish a nature strategy in 2021. The aim of this strategy would be to “conserve and enhance England’s biodiversity”. In December 2020, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, the Minister for Pacific and the Environment, confirmed the nature strategy would replace the existing Biodiversity 2020 strategy in England. The Government has said the strategy will set out its plans for improving the UK’s biodiversity over the next ten years. Further information on the Government’s biodiversity strategy is provided in the House of Lords Library In Focus article ‘Biodiversity’.
England tree strategy
In addition to the nature strategy, the Government has said it will publish its England tree strategy in spring 2021. The Government published its draft England tree strategy in June 2020. This set out plans intended to encourage the creation of new forests, the expansion of existing forests and the planting of more trees in urban environments. A consultation on the England tree strategy ran from June to September 2020. The Government has yet to publish a summary of the responses to this consultation but has said that it will publish this summary alongside the final strategy in 2021. The Woodland Trust has welcomed the strategy’s proposals. However, it has proposed the Environment Bill should be amended to put this strategy on a statutory basis.
- House of Commons Library, ‘Environment Bill 2019–21: Report on Committee and Remaining Stages in the Commons’, 17 March 2021
- House of Commons Treasury Committee, ‘Net zero and the Future of Green Finance’, 22 April 2021, HC 147 of session 2019–21
- Climate Change Committee, Sixth Carbon Budget, 9 December 2020
- Debate on ‘Biodiversity emergency’, HL Hansard, 22 April 2021, cols 403–16GC
- Debate on ‘Net zero carbon emissions’, HL Hansard, 21 April 2021, cols 311–60GC
Cover image by Zybnek Burival from Unsplash.