The year ahead for environmental legislation

26th November 2021

Neil Howe looks at the environment-related legislation we can expect in 2022 – from the slow progress of the Environment Bill to ambitious new waste management schemes

With Brexit ‘done’, the UK legislative landscape is now concerned with achieving net zero. In 2021 we saw the incorporation of international aviation and shipping emissions into the UK Climate Change Committee’s sixth Carbon Budget.

The government has set in law the world’s most ambitious climate change target – cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels – and we are more than three quarters of the way to our aim of reaching net zero by 2050. It’s no surprise, then, that 2022 will continue along a similar theme – although not everything is as progressive.

Landmark or landlocked?

The Environment Bill continues to move slowly through Parliament. Described by the government as ‘landmark’, ‘flagship’ and ‘world leading’, it has been delayed time and again since it was proposed in 2018. Some of this is down to the pandemic, but it has been repeatedly held back while other legislation has progressed.

It is currently ping-ponging its way between the Commons and the Lords, with the latter describing it as “a terrible Bill” – and that was before peers saw the bulk of their 14 amendments rejected. These amendments included demands to declare a biodiversity and climate change emergency, improve protection for ancient woodland and eliminate sewage discharges into rivers.

The latest delays mean the government did not meet its self-imposed deadline for the Bill to receive Royal Assent before COP26 – something it said would “weaken our hand in these extraordinarily important climate and environment negotiations”. Surely the Bill will finish its torturous passage in 2022?

Best laid plans

A similar fate has met the planning system reforms, put on hold by housing secretary Michael Gove. The proposals would see the establishment of three planning zones, designed to speed up the decision-making process. Areas would be classified as protected, renewal or growth zones, with development restricted in protected areas. In growth zones, development that conforms to pre-agreed plans will be automatically approved. The reforms have attracted heavy criticism for their emphasis on speed, and some MPs were reportedly worried about backlash in their constituencies.

The Planning Bill was due to go before Parliament late in 2021, but it appears Gove has had a rethink, which could see it heavily watered down, with major reforms removed. It’s likely that, in 2022, the Bill will be missing the plans for zonal planning, as well as mandatory housebuilding targets for local authorities.

Future Buildings Standard

Buildings will be key in the drive towards our net-zero target. A consultation is ongoing on phasing out fossil fuel heating systems in homes, businesses and public buildings. Also, feedback on the Future Buildings Standard will see changes to the Building Regulations 2010 – particularly Part L, on conservation and fuel power, and Part F, on ventilation. This will impact non-domestic buildings and dwellings, as well as addressing overheating in new residential buildings.

Heating and powering buildings accounts for 40% of the total UK energy use, so energy efficiency and ventilation improvements are essential, along with the decarbonisation of new and existing homes.

Industry feedback has been largely positive, but there is concern that the consultation did not go far enough; tighter energy efficiency standards have been suggested, and there are questions around the scale of the uptake of low-carbon technologies and how to ensure local planning strategies integrate the right infrastructure decarbonisation. It will be interesting to see whether the legal changes go beyond the scope of the consultation.

Energy efficiency

Later in 2022 we should see legislation to improve and strengthen the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS), with the aim of increasing participating businesses’ uptake of energy efficiency measures.

ESOS is a major policy for improving business energy efficiency via provision of high-quality information about energy savings. Acting on these recommendations helps businesses reduce energy consumption and costs, as well as contributing to net zero by reducing emissions.

The changes will improve audit quality through reporting standardisation, including a net-zero element in audits and the requirement for participants to publicly disclose high-level recommendations. There are plans to extend the scope to include medium-sized businesses, and to make action on recommendations mandatory.

While mandatory obligations may not be popular with businesses, which face a difficult economic period, they could be key in making operations more sustainable.

Waste not

The waste sector will see drastic changes, with packaging waste management overhauled. The plastic packaging tax due to come into force in April gives businesses an incentive to use recycled plastic in plastic packaging.

“The UK government has set the world’s most ambitious climate target”

A deposit return scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will mean producers and retailers of PET plastic, glass, aluminium and steel drinks containers must take back empty vessels once they become waste. They will have to sign up to the Deposit Management Organisation and report on how many containers were produced and how many were recycled. There will be legally binding recycling targets, and the scheme aims to achieve a 90% collection rate after three years.

Meanwhile, extended producer responsibility schemes will set minimum recycling targets, and an overall recycling rate for the packaging waste that falls within their scope to reach 73% by 2030.

The cost of managing packaging waste will fall on producers, and will move from recovery costs to net costs of collection, sorting, recycling and disposal. By introducing a single point obligation (a single producer responsible for the cost of managing a packaging item), schemes will focus on those who are best placed to reduce packaging and increase its recyclability. We can also expect movement on plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups.

European electronics

It will be interesting to see how the UK reacts to new EU e-waste measures. The EU Commission has put forward legislation to establish a common charging solution for all relevant devices, under which USB-C will become the standard port for all smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld games consoles. It would also unbundle the sale of chargers from that of devices, improving consumer convenience and reducing their environmental footprint.

Clearing the air

Late last year, the WHO cut recommended limits for air pollution and urged nations to tackle the issue. It was the first such update for 16 years, and the guideline limit for the most damaging pollution (particles from burning fossil fuels) has been halved. The new limit for nitrogen dioxide, mainly produced by diesel engines, is 75% lower.

The UK response was non-committal, citing “ambitious targets on air quality” that will be set via the Environment Bill, and stating “we must not under-estimate the challenges these [new limits] would bring, particularly in large cities and for people’s daily lives”.

A consultation on the proposed new targets is expected in early 2022 and will be a good indication of where the UK stands on its commitments. Certainly, with the climate emergency, and the recent ‘adapt or die’ message from the Environment Agency, you would hope the environment will be at the forefront of legislation.

Neil Howe is senior legal author at Cedrec Information Systems.

Image credit | iStock

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