UK sustainability health check shows some signs of recovery, but the environment remains in poor state

14th July 2014

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  • Construction ,
  • Waste ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • Biodiversity



Greenhouse-gas emissions declined 26.7% between 1990 and 2013, and recycling rates have increased by 32% since 2000, but wild birds, seen as a key measure of the UK's natural environment, have continued to decline, according to the latest data from the office for national statistics (ONS).

The ONS uses 35 sustainable development indicators and 66 measures to provide an overview of progress toward a sustainable economy, society and environment. GDP, as a headline economic indicator, peaked in 2007 and shows some recent improvements but remains below the peak level – median incomes have also fallen since 2010. Life expectancy, as an indicator of a healthy society, continues to rise, with women generally living a healthier, longer life than men.

In the environment section there are 14 indicators and, while there are some improvements, performance remains mixed overall.

The state of the natural environment, which underpins the government’s policies on natural capital, remains a concern, reports the ONS. Wild birds, as a headline measure of the state of wildlife and countryside, are in decline, indicating that natural habitats and wildlife food chains are under stress. In 2012, the breeding farmland birds index in England was 49% lower than its 1970 value and the breeding woodland bird index was 18% lower over the same period.

The decline in wild bird species is linked to changes in farmland management over the past 40 years. In 2012, arable crops, horticulture and improved grassland occupy 50% of the UK land use, whereas semi-natural grassland, mountain heath and bog occupy less that 30% and broad leave woodland habitats have only 6% of land use cover. Urban areas occupy 6% of land use.

However, some environmental indicators are showing improvement. Emissions of carbon dioxide and all greenhouse gases (GHG) fell by 21.5% and 26.7% respectively between 1990 and 2013, and there has been a downward trend in total emissions across most sectors, most notably from the energy sector. Transport emissions, which grew between 1970 and 2000, peaked in 2007 and then declined but have remained steady from 2010.

The share of final energy consumption from renewable sources tripled between 2005 and 2012, finds the ONS, although renewables still contribute only 4.1% of total UK energy use.

Household waste recycling rates increased from 11% to 43% between 2000 and 2012 but the amount of waste recycled, composted or reused was marginally lower in 2013. The UK recycling rates are lower than the projected EU target (50%) for household waste recycling by 2020.

The UK construction and demolition recovery rate has been close to 90% for all four years that the indicator has been measured. Consumption of construction materials has also declined, by 31% between 2000 and 2011, suggesting an increase in resource productivity, although the recession has played a part in reduced material consumption from 2008 onwards.

Air quality is used as a measure of health and wellbeing and the data reveals a mixed picture. The average number of pollution days in urban sites was 14 days in 2013, compared to 17 days in 2012. The average number of pollution days in rural sites was 16 days in 2013, compared with 12 days in 2012.

The proportion of rivers classed as high biological quality fell from 304 to 253 between 2009 and 2012.

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