The government is failing on almost all of its environmental targets, risking an “irreversible spiral of decline” in nature, a damning report by the environment watchdog has found.
Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), has said in the report, published today, that if action is not taken England will fail to meet its goal of halting nature’s decline by 2030, as well as a host of other vital nature targets.
Last year, Rishi Sunak announced the environment improvement plan (EIP), which set legally binding targets for ministers to meet on nature and the environment. The prime minister said it would “drive forward progress with renewed ambition”.
The OEP, which was set up as an environmental watchdog after Brexit, has found that meeting the targets is “at risk” and unlikely to happen without a swift change in policies to improve nature.
The report shows the government is failing on almost every measure to protect the environment, from recovery of native British species numbers to water quality and managing amounts of toxic chemicals and pesticides.
The legally binding environment targets are a part of the Environment Act 2021, which was passed to replace EU law. Countries in the bloc can be sanctioned by the EU if they fall behind on environmental standards, but now the UK has left this is the only way ministers are held to account for protecting the environment.
Natalie Prossed, the chief executive of the OEP, said taking legal action against the government would be kept under “active consideration” if ministers continued to fail to meet environmental targets.
The report, which covers the period 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023, found that of 40 environmental targets set for England, the government is largely on track to achieve four, partly on track to achieve 11, and largely off track to achieve 10. Progress towards a further 15 targets could not be assessed due to a lack of sufficient evidence.
Stacey said: “The environment is not yet set irreversibly in a spiral of decline, but adverse trends continue, and significantly so in relation to climate change. It is yet more imperative that change happens now, but that doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Our stakeholders in government and beyond tell us the statutory species abundance targets are demanding but could be achieved, albeit doubt is mounting that they will be.”
She added that the government had announced policies to clean up water and air, and to improve the abundance of species such as birds, bats and butterflies, but had not put these in place. Stacey said she was additionally “disappointed” the government had taken a full year to respond to the OEP’s previous report on its progress, and has not shared a detailed plan of how it would meet the EIP.
Ways the government has failed to implement its policies include slow tree planting, the rate of which needs to be doubled to meet the EIP woodland cover target, and a failure to release its promised chemicals and land-use strategies, which the OEP said are vital tools for meeting the targets.
“Despite the revision of the government’s EIP, it is not clear how, or indeed whether, government will protect, restore and significantly improve the environment at the scale needed, nor how it will meet the statutory targets and interim targets it has set. Detailed delivery plans have not been published,” Stacey said.
She added: “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.”
Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary,, said Labour would urgently act to reverse these trends if it came into power, adding: “The Conservatives are destroying our beautiful countryside. This report is a damning indictment of the government and piles on more evidence that our previous countryside is not safe in Tory hands.
“They have left the UK as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with record levels of toxic sewage swilling through our rivers, lakes and seas.
“When it comes to nature, Labour are the conservers, not the Conservatives. Labour created our national parks, opened the coastal footpath and passed the world’s first laws to protect the climate. We will build on this proud legacy and restore pride to our countryside.”
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Since 2010, the government has created or restored habitat the size of Dorset, and in the last six months alone, we have implemented a ban on single-use plastics, begun the process of creating a new national park, planted nearly 5 million trees and worked with farmers to launch 34 new landscape recovery projects.
“We were always clear that our targets are ambitious, and would require significant work to achieve, but we are fully committed to creating a greener country for future generations and going further and faster to deliver for nature.
“We will carefully review the Office for Environmental Protection’s findings and respond in due course.”