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More action is needed to stop infrastructure barriers holding back environmental progress

This post is by Alex Goodwin, policy advisor, and Jonathan Chappell, senior policy advisor, at the National Infrastructure Commission.

In recent years, the web of interdependencies between infrastructure and the environment has become increasingly clear. Well designed infrastructure can protect the environment and mitigate climate risks; for example, effective waste management can reduce the need for material extraction and its associated greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, in the water sector, effective balancing of supply infrastructure and resource demand can protect habitats otherwise at risk.

While the National Infrastructure Commission has always sought to reflect these relationships, we are now more focused on this than ever: the last Spending Review confirmed an enhancement of the commission’s formal objectives, adding net zero and climate resilience to existing objectives to support sustainable economic growth, improve competitiveness and quality of life.

Meanwhile, the government has made welcome commitments to reduce emissions and deliver ‘biodiversity net gain’ across environmentally critical infrastructure, such as water and waste. The Environment Act 2021 confirmed this ambition. However, the commission’s recently published annual Infrastructure Progress Review indicates a widening gap between ambition and delivery.

Recycling rates are plateauing
Last year, prior to COP26, the prime minister said “recycling isn’t the answer” to fixing the climate crisis. Recycling is, of course, not the whole answer, but increasing consumption of materials and products in turn increases waste. While consumption could be less wasteful – and we should challenge unnecessary over-consumption where possible – it is a consequence of societal demand. Increasing the circularity of materials through recycling is, therefore, an important question the government must answer.

Despite the publication of the resources and waste strategy in 2018 – now the government’s main roadmap for waste policy – municipal waste recycling rates continue to plateau. The strategy promised a charge of consultations, funding and legislation across the sector. However, implementation of these commitments has been slow.

Since the mid 2010s, emissions have increased by around 15 per cent as waste has grown, use of energy from waste plants has increased and recycling rates have stagnated at just above 40 per cent. It would be unfair to suggest there has been no progress: plastic packaging recycling rates have seen year on year increases, while measures to reduce landfill have successfully diverted waste to more environmentally friendly treatment and disposal. But, in England, the total volume of aggregate waste has increased by 12 per cent between 2010 and 2018. Recycling must outpace the growth in consumption.

The Environment Act introduced new powers to meet the waste targets laid out in the resources and waste strategy. Decisions on these were expected this year, but the government has now delayed the roll out of important areas of extended producer responsibility, including the scheme administrators and fee modulation. Despite these delays, it has, at the same time, proposed an ambitious target to reduce residual waste per capita by 50 per cent by 2042. To meet this, ministers have recognised that recycling targets will have to be more ambitious, proposing that the current municipal recycling target of 65 per cent by 2035 rises to 70-75 per cent by 2042.

The policy delays are inconsistent with the scale of this ambition. As our Infrastructure Progress Review highlights, a target of 65 per cent is already a steep hill to climb. The review’s focus on the increasing recycling rates by finalising policy is more vital than ever.

Is progress on cutting water demand drying up?
Effective management of water resources reduces levels of abstraction from rivers and other sources which can damage or destroy local ecosystems.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s recommends a twin track approach to water resource management: simultaneously increasing supply and reducing demand.

On increasing supply, progress is being made. Last year saw the publication of draft regional plans to manage water resources. A milestone was also reached when the Havant Thicket Reservoir, the first to be built in the south east since the 1970s, was granted planning permission.

On the thornier issue of reducing demand, progress has slowed to a trickle. The industry and Ofwat accepted the commission’s proposal for a target to halve leakage by 2050, but per capita consumption is still not falling consistently. In fact, during the pandemic, consumption rose from 143 to 155 litres per person per day. Defra is consulting on a target to reduce this by 20 per cent by 2037 on 2019-20 levels, but there are no detailed plans to achieve it.

In our first National Infrastructure Assessment, published in 2018, we proposed enabling compulsory metering which could, on its own, reduce demand by 15 per cent. The government decided against this, favouring an approach which included compulsory metering in water stressed areas, where customer support can be demonstrated, encouraging local authorities to adopt tighter water efficiency measures for new buildings and introducing efficiency labeling for domestic and business products. At this level, the government’s plan will struggle to deliver the demand reductions necessary and prevent future harmful water abstraction, which could literally leave fish out of water.

The water and waste sectors are just two examples where infrastructure is proving to be a barrier to environmental progress. Across the commission’s six sector remit, also including energy, transport, flooding and digital, our second National Infrastructure Assessment and allied work will consider how policy can better support climate resilience and deliver a net gain in biodiversity.

As we work on these new, independent recommendations to government, we eagerly await further progress towards meeting the goals to which ministers have already committed.

The National Infrastructure Commission was established in 2015 to provide independent analysis and advice to government to help the UK meet its long term infrastructure needs.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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