Credible target setting

25th September 2020


IEMA recently hosted a discussion on how the UK government can deliver credible environmental targets. Chris Seekings reports.

The UK government has committed to establishing legally-binding environmental targets through its landmark Environment Bill, however, there are concerns that the legislation could deliver arbitrary and poorly-defined goals.

In response, the Broadway Initiative in partnership with IEMA and the Aldersgate Group hosted a webinar this week to discuss how the UK can set credible targets that set the country on the path to a greener future outside of the EU.

A wide range of representatives from business and industry, as well as the NGO community, joined the secretary of state for the environment, farming and rural affairs, George Eustace, the CEO of the Committee on Climate Change, Chris Stark, and IEMA's chief executive, Sarah Mukherjee.

In a pre-recorded message, Eustace said: “The targets framework in the Environment Bill is an absolutely central plank. All of the environmental challenges we face are long-term and addressing them requires government to assess and take a consistent approach. Having a set of coherent targets in the bill can help guide that consistent policy even though governments may come and go.“

The secretary of state has a duty to set at least one long-term legally-binding target in each of the following areas by 31st October 2022: air quality, water, biodiversity, and resource efficiency and waste reduction; together with an annual mean level of PM2.5 in ambient air target.

“But while the bill says we must set at lease one target in each of those four areas, we will probably need to set several targets in those four areas,“ Eustace said. “For example, on biodiversity, if all we measured was improvements on protected sites, we wouldn't necessarily capture other vitally important aspects of biodiversity, such as soil health.

“We also have to bear in mind that with targets there can be unintended consequences. For example, targets for tackling climate change might not necessarily be good for biodiversity, so the policy tools we use to deliver these targets must retain a holistic ethos that acknowledge the complex interactions in our environment.

“Our aim really with these targets is to move beyond protection and preventing declines in wildlife, to reversing those trends and getting them moving in the right direction on every front, so we are not just protecting what's left, but building back nature and habitats.“

The CCC's CEO Chris Stark welcomed the words from the secretary of state, but highlighted a number of key challenges to setting meaningful environmental targets now that the UK is outside of the EU.

“There is huge overlap between the environmental objectives and climate objectives that we have in UK, and all of this is going to have to be coordinated outside of the protections for the environment that were enshrined in EU law,“ he said.

“At a fundamental level, were are going to move from an EU-wide set of protections to what I'm afraid is going to be a patchwork of environmental protections across the four nations of the UK. I think that is going to be tricky.

“My enduring worry for this bill is that we will have a piece of legislation that becomes law without properly establishing the various protections and protocols that we need.“

Stark explained how the Climate change Act should be seen as a model for target setting, and that the Environment Bill must:

  • Require the government to take advice of an independent and well-resourced expert body that undertakes broader consultations for targets setting
  • Compel action now, with the current interim targets outlined in the bill not yet legally binding
  • Link long-term targets and their associated time frames directly to the goals set in the government's 25 Year Environment Plan

“But perhaps the toughest challenge of all is imaging how climate change will itself interact with these new environmental targets. Climate change presents risks to these, so we have to have targets that can adapt to that,“ Stark added.

The panel then heard from Shirley Rodrigues, deputy mayor for environment and energy at the Greater London Authority, who discussed how London, and cities in general, can play a key part in delivering meaningful targets, while Stefano Agostini, CEO at Nestle UK and Ireland, discussed the role of business.

IEMA's executive director of policy, Martin Baxter, then outlined the findings of engagement work with IEMA members, which showed strong agreement that:

  • Well-designed targets are helpful for planning substantial improvements and environmental outcomes
  • A roadmap is needed that gives a longer-term indication of what targets the government anticipates in the future
  • The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be used to guide target setting
  • It is important to consider wider environmental targets while planning to meet the net-zero target.

“The road to sustainability is littered with goals and targets that have failed or are only partially met,“ Mukherjee said. “The Environment Bill provides the next opportunity, not only to crystallise in law the government's commitment to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth, but also to set out the means to achieve it.

“The last few days have seen an unprecedented series of reports that paint a depressing picture of lofty ambition brought down by failures to deliver – this can no longer be acceptable.

“In welcoming an approach that puts legally-binding targets at the heart of the Environment Bill, we must all rise to the challenge of meeting them – further failure is not an option.“

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