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Long Awaited Environment Bill Back in Parliament

  • United Kingdom
  • Environment

10-02-2020

After failing to complete its passage through Parliament at the end of 2019, the Environment Bill (“the Bill”) was back in Parliament on 30 January 2020.

Amid widespread concern that the UK will not uphold existing standards of environmental protection after the Brexit transition period comes to an end, the Bill seeks to deliver “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” by setting a “gold standard” for environmental protection. By allowing the UK to diverge from future EU environmental legislation, this, in theory, at least  paves the way for the UK to exceed any standards set by the EU.

Some of the measures introduced by the Bill include:

Environmental governance

Building on the UK’s commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to set legally binding environmental targets in the areas of air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction. It also provides for environmental improvement plans to be drawn up, published and reviewed every five years.

The Bill also seeks to put five overarching environmental principles at the heart of policy making by requiring cabinet ministers to have “due regard” to them when making policy decisions. These are: the principle of environmental protection; the principle of preventative action; the precautionary principle; the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and the polluter pays principle.

Whilst it does not amount to a non-regression clause there is a new obligation on ministers when introducing new environmental laws to state that the new bill will not reduce the current level of environmental protection or whether the minister is unable to make that statement but still wants to proceed with the legislation. It remains to be seen whether a stronger, unequivocal non-regression principle will be added as the Bill goes through parliament.

Another new provision is that the Secretary of State will be obliged to report every two years on significant developments in international environmental protection legislation. It will be interesting to see to what extent the government will be influenced by international and potentially EU developments despite Brexit.   

Creation of the Office for Environmental Protection

A key element of the Bill is the creation of a new environmental watchdog - the Office for Environmental Protection (“OEP”) which will be responsible for monitoring the implementation of environmental law (including climate change legislation) by government, local and public bodies and for taking enforcement action should they fail to comply. Although designed to take on the role currently played by the European Commission in holding the government to account, criticisms have emerged as to the extent to which it will be able to actually do this.

Moving towards a circular economy model

In line with the development of legislation around single-use plastics, the Bill seeks to drive a shift in maximising resource efficiency, preventing waste and moving towards a circular economy model. Some of the key measures introduced by the Bill include:

  • the power to create new extended producer responsibility schemes to require producers to contribute to the disposal costs of the products they manufacture, process or supply;
  • the power to require producers to provide information to consumers about the resource efficiency of their products and to require certain products to meet specified resource efficiency requirements;
  • the power to establish deposit return schemes where consumers pay an up-front deposit when they buy an item, which is then redeemed on return of the used item;
  • the power to impose charges on single-use plastic items similar to the 5p carrier bag charge;
  • a set list of recyclable material that must be collected from households and businesses in order to promote consistency of waste collection services across the country;
  • the power to introduce an electronic waste tracking system to combat waste crime through greater transparency of the waste management system; and
  • the power to restrict or prohibit the importation and/or the exportation of waste (including plastic waste) to developing countries.

With the Bill expected to play a crucial role in the government’s commitment to protecting and improving the environment for future generations, it is essential that companies understand their existing legal obligations and consider how their business will be impacted by future legislative developments.

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