Government remains off track to meet its environmental ambitions

Government remains largely off track to meets its environmental ambitions and must speed up and scale up its efforts in order to achieve them, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has found in its annual progress report.

The OEP report provides an assessment of government’s progress towards legally-binding environmental targets and the goals of its Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP). It covers the period 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023. It also includes content on selected cross-cutting themes, such as nature-friendly farming, and a more in-depth assessment focused on government’s apex goal of achieving ‘thriving plants and wildlife’.

Dame Glenys Stacey, Chair of the OEP, said, “While some progress has been made, substantial challenges remain. Our assessment is that government is largely off track to meet its ambitions and its legal obligations.

“Deeply, deeply concerning adverse environmental trends continue. With the depleted state of our natural environment and the unprecedented pace of climate change, it does seem to many that we are at a crossroads. It is not easy for us as a nation to choose the right path, the right trajectory and to travel together at the pace needed, but we simply must.

“Government must speed up its efforts. Many policies are in the early stages or are long awaited. In some areas the right policies are in place, but now must be implemented quickly.

“It must also scale up its efforts. Change has to happen at the right scale, if we are to change the trajectory. We give many examples in our report where scaling up is required.

“Lastly, government’s plans must stack up. Government must be clear itself and set out transparently how it will change the nation’s trajectory to the extent now needed, in good time.

“This transparency is key. So far, government has not been clear enough about how its ambitions will be delivered – about all that is to be done in each goal area, and against each statutory target, when, and by whom. Delivery bodies, local government, businesses and the environment sector need to know in full, what part they must play. In our view, government must do more to set out for Parliament, the public and all those who must play a role in this how it intends to deliver its ambition.

“The trajectory can be changed. There are some areas where things are starting to head in the right direction, showing that with the right actions it can be done. But more must be done and done at pace.”

The OEP’s assessment of 40 individual environmental targets, including legally binding targets set under the Environment Act 2021, found government is largely on track to achieve four, partially on track to achieve 11, and largely off track to achieve ten. It was not possible to assess progress against a further 15 targets due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Targets where government is largely on track relate to specific pollutants and wastewater. Targets where government is largely off track span most EIP goal areas and include residual waste, sustainable fisheries, chemicals and improving nature.

The OEP’s assessment of 51 recent environmental trends found that 25 trends are improving, ten are static, eight are deteriorating and eight could not be assessed due to a lack of data. Most progress has been made on reducing some environmental pressures – such as emissions of some air pollutants, greenhouse gases and chemical pollutants.

Looking at what this means for progress across the 10 goal areas of the EIP, the OEP concludes that in seven of the 10 goal areas progress has been mixed, and in three progress has been limited.

In terms of the overall prospects of government meeting its ambitions for significantly improving the natural environment, the OEP concludes that in seven goal areas, including the apex goal of achieving ‘thriving plants and wildlife’, government is largely off track. In two goal areas, government is partially on track (‘clean air’ and ‘reducing the risk of harm from environmental hazards’), and in one area, ‘enhancing beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment’, progress could not be assessed due to a lack of evidence.

The report identifies factors impeding progress:

  • Key policies, strategies and regulatory frameworks are announced and anticipated, but not then developed or delivered. For example, major initiatives, such as a Chemicals Strategy and a Land Use Framework, are long awaited. This creates uncertainty, presents barriers to progress, and results in missed opportunities.
  • Actions are not addressing all major pressures. For example, for water quality, commitments to investment have increased substantially in some but not all areas of need.
  • Resources are not always allocated as needed, even when tools and actions are well understood. For example, there is an approach in place for tackling invasive non-native species, but resources are inadequate to implement actions at the scale required to achieve desired outcomes.
  • The urgency with which positive actions are being implemented is frequently lacking. For example, the current rate of tree planting needs to substantially increase to achieve woodland creation goals.

The report reaffirms the key recommendations the OEP made following last year’s assessment of progress, and makes further detailed recommendations for each goal area of the EIP. The key recommendations are that government should:

  • Implement the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 effectively
  • Develop and implement clear and effective governance
  • Develop and implement delivery plans
  • Set and vigorously pursue clear and achievable interim targets
  • Develop and implement an effective monitoring, evaluation and learning framework

Meanwhile the Green Alliance responded to the OEP report, recommending three ways that the government can get back on track to reverse nature decline and meet key green goals. They said:

The government needs to decide how we’ll use the UK’s land to meet nature and climate goals, and give farmers consistent support to help

Lydia Collas, senior policy analyst at Green Alliance said, “The government’s Land Use Framework was promised in 2022 but has been repeatedly delayed as key people have moved roles in the environment department. How we use land has a critical role in delivering our climate and nature targets, so without a framework we don’t know for certain that the government’s farming policy will succeed. In the meantime, money isn’t going to the right priorities – and farmers lack certainty on what actions the government will pay them to take on their land, because they’re offered a changing menu to choose from each year. When the framework appears, it must take pay serious attention to the trade-offs between carbon storage, nature restoration and food production in different parts of the country, and set incentives accordingly.”

The government must publish a delivery plan for environmental improvement up to 2030

Ruth Chambers, senior fellow at Green Alliance, said, “Any plan is only as good as its implementation. The government has let this part of the Environmental Improvement plan drift, and now risks missing the first set of legally binding targets set out in the Environment Act 2021. We need a concrete plan for environmental improvement up to 2030 – which sets smart and ambitious delivery targets, which makes specific parts of the government responsible for meeting them, and which is supported by a new dedicated Cabinet committee.”

The government should plan to reduce the use of resources, rather than simply recycling them or dealing with waste better

Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said, “The government’s obsession with waste does little to nothing to reduce the impact of extracting resources. This is inexcusable as resource extraction and processing cause 50 per cent of global emissions and more than 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress. It also takes the government’s focus away from its legal responsibilities to reduce waste being created in the first place. Rather than setting an unambitious target for residual waste, we need a meaningful plan to reduce resource use, preferably backed up by a new target.”

Support a practical, investable and inclusive narrative for land use.

Sign-up to receive our newsletter

Newsletter Signup
Contribute for just £2.50 per week
Skip to content