This post is by Zoe Avison, policy analyst at Green Alliance.
The Environment Bill is currently being scrutinised in the House of Lords and returns today for another session of debate on a mammoth list of amendments put forward for consideration.
One amendment we hope to see incorporated is number 43. This will place a duty on the secretary of state to meet any interim targets set.
The bill obliges the government to set long term environmental targets in four priority areas (water, air, biodiversity and waste) with an additional target for fine particulate air pollution. Long term, in this case, means fifteen years or roughly three parliamentary sessions.
Environmental improvement shouldn’t be subject to short term politics
Environmental improvement can be a slow process, extending beyond political cycles which have a tendency to focus on the short term. The government has accepted that long term targets are needed. But how should action be compelled in the near term? And, why not reap the political capital of setting ambitious targets and then leave the actual delivery, with its spending and political challenges, to a distant future government?
The bill’s solution is to set interim targets at intervals of five years although, crucially, these will not be legally binding. This is concerning because experience shows that targets are most effective when they are binding, making it more likely that early action is taken and sustained by successive governments. Amendment 43 seeks to make sure that interim targets have the same legal status as longer term targets. As the shadow front bench has noted, mechanisms are needed to avoid things being kicked into the long grass.
Interdependencies in the natural world mean missing a target in one priority area could make it harder to meet one in another. For example, a target to improve freshwater biodiversity will rely on improving water quality in rivers. Improving air quality will be much harder if huge amounts of waste continue to be incinerated. It is, therefore, important that progress is made on all priority areas in lockstep. Falling behind on one risks the success of another. There can be long lag times between environmental interventions and measurable results making it even more crucial that interim targets are set and met on clear timescales.
Legal targets lead to true commitment
Defra has outlined a rigorous, evidence-based target setting process that includes analysis to ensure targets set are achievable and affordable to businesses and wider society. They will be scrutinised by independent experts who will give their view on the deliverability and any impacts of the targets.
Interim targets will, therefore, outline a cost effective pathway; falling behind on this could make delivery more costly than necessary and runs the risk of failure in the longer term. The bill requires the secretary of state to be satisfied that an interim target can be met, but there should also be a legal requirement to meet it. Not only will this lead to action being taken now to put the UK on a path to meeting its long term targets, it will also make sure public funds are used prudently.
Fixing a target in law is a commitment device, sending a strong signal internally and externally on the government’s priorities and duties. You only need to look at the history of carbon targets for a warning of the risk of relying on weak, non-binding targets for cross-cutting issues. Defra’s Climate Change Programme (set out in 2000) contained non-binding targets that failed to convince other departments to cut carbon emissions. By 2003, the Sustainable Development Commission had latched onto this gap and warned that the UK was on track to fall well short of meeting its overall target.
The government responded and the Climate Change Act (2008) was passed with cross party support, introduced legislated targets (both long and short term) in the form of carbon budgets which have given the act more clout to drive action across government. The UK has met its first two carbon budgets and is on track to meet the third (2018-22) (though much more action is needed to get on track for meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets which run from 2023 to 2032).
Binding targets also strengthen the hand of civil servants when a new minister is appointed who may have other priorities or simply be disinterested in a particular policy area. If meeting a target is the law, even a reluctant secretary of state must pay attention.
External signalling is important too. Businesses require certainty to invest in measures that reduce environmental impact, otherwise they risk unnecessary spending that puts them at a disadvantage with competitors, storing up costs for the future. Several businesses have already called for interim targets to be binding.
The triple lock is too weak
The government argues that the bill contains sufficient provisions for the oversight of interim targets, through a process of planning, monitoring and reporting known as the ‘triple lock’. Although these processes are important, they do not obligate action and the triple lock isn’t the safety mechanism the government says it is . The new Office for Environmental Protection can only enforce action when the government fails to meet its legal duties. The earliest instance where enforcement on targets can be taken is 15 years away, allowing ministers to kick the can down the road for a future government to deal with. This is not only unfair to pass the responsibility to future generations of politicians but also runs the risk of cascading environmental catastrophes unfolding in the meantime to the detriment of us all. Binding interim targets would help to ensure that the vision and ambition of current ministers is respected and delivered by their successors.