In its latest report to government, the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) highlights that England’s natural environment remains off track to meet the objective to improve the environment within a generation, set nine years ago in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper and put at the heart of the 25 Year Environment Plan.
The Committee has developed a new framework that categorises seven natural resource groups and outlines each group’s progress against the government’s environmental objectives. The framework brings together a range of available evidence on the state of the country’s natural environment.
The majority of the country’s natural assets examined by the expert committee (five out of seven) are ‘deteriorating’, while no natural asset group is making progress in meeting existing targets and commitments:
- Atmosphere (no change in progress): Airborne ammonia levels are not on track to meet the target reduction of 8% of 2005 levels.
- Freshwater (deteriorating): In 2019, no surface water bodies in the UK had ‘good’ chemical status.
- Marine (deteriorating): Seawater pH levels are decreasing due to absorption of CO2.
- Soils (deteriorating): erosion, intensive farming and development results in losses of at least £0.9 billion every year for England and Wales.
- Plants and wildlife (deteriorating): 30% of the UK’s bee and hoverfly species declined between 1980 and 2016.
- Land (deteriorating): Only 51% of National Nature Reserves (NNR) are in ‘favourable’ condition, and the number of parks in the risk register has increased between 2018 and 2019.
- Minerals (no change in progress): Household waste recycling rates have plateaued since 2013 at around 44%.
The Committee highlights the need for urgent action to reverse these declines, and the worrying lack of data on the natural environment – especially on the condition of the country’s soils and the impact climate change is having on the marine environment. To fill these data gaps, the Committee recommends the public are encouraged by the Government to take part in environmental monitoring, such as nationwide surveys that identify the state of the country’s insects. The Committee also recommends that this is included as part of the government’s Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment, which should be properly funded, so that environmental changes can be easily identified.
The Committee advises that the new independent environmental body, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), uses this framework once it is established in 2021 to effectively scrutinise government’s progress towards improving the natural environment and meeting the goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan.
Commenting on the final response, Dieter Helm, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford and Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, said:
“Nearly a decade has passed since the government committed to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation. Our report highlights the limited evidence of progress and some worrying declines. With the Environment Bill to return imminently return to Parliament, the Government has a once in a generation opportunity to transform our environment. The Office for Environmental Protection must be properly resourced to take forward the framework the Committee has developed to deliver and monitor the changes needed to urgently restore England’s environment. It is vital that we measure the state of our natural assets and then target interventions to improve the environment in a coherent way. We can be green and prosperous, but it will not happen by default.”
The NCC is chaired by Professor Dieter Helm and advises government on the natural environment, including how to implement the 25 Year Environment Plan and track progress against the Plan’s objectives. With the Committee’s final term due to finish at the end of 2020, the NCC’s role in tracking progress against the Plan’s objectives will be picked up by the OEP once it is established in 2021.
The report is the Natural Capital Committee’s final response to the government’s second progress report to the 25 Year Environment Plan published in June 2020. This report follows the committee’s interim report published in July 2020 which raised concerns that the evidence presented in the government’s progress reports shows only a partial picture due to the narrow range of datasets provided.