This week marked the start of a crucial few weeks for the environment bill, so what should food companies look out for?
The environment bill is “at the vanguard of our work to implement the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”, said environment secretary George Eustice last week. The bill obliges the government to set long- term environmental targets in four priority areas (water, air, biodiversity and waste) with an additional target for fine particulate air pollution.
As Green Alliance recently noted in a blog, the bill is also “destined to kickstart domestic action to address environmental challenges ranging from toxic air in cities to worsening river pollution to species decline and habitat loss to our throwaway society”.
This week peers began debating their amendments to the bill as it reached the report stage in the House of Lords. The next few weeks will be crucial in developing and finalising the bill so Footprint asked three experts following it closely to provide a brief snapshot of what to watch out for.
Sarah Williams is head of the Greener UK unit. Signe Norberg is head of public affairs and communications at the Aldersgate Group. And Martin Baxter is director of policy and external affairs at IEMA, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment.
Can you provide a sense of how important this bill is?
Signe Norberg (SN): If designed correctly, the bill will provide much needed long-term policy direction to businesses, shape environmental policies in the decades to come, and drive private sector investment in the natural environment. For the food industry in particular, it will bring forward important measures to improve resource efficiency by mandating resource efficiency information, and providing a legislative footing for deposit return schemes and charges for both single-use plastic items and carrier bags.
What stage are we at?
Sarah Williams (SW): We’re entering the final stages of this bill. The government has committed to passing it ahead of COP26, which will be tight but could provide a positive backdrop to the negotiations. The Lords report stage started on Monday, with peers urging the government to consider and accept amendments that will strengthen the bill.
What might change (or not)?
Martin Baxter (MB): The overall structure of the bill is well-established and unlikely to change. Work is underway on many of the new environmental governance mechanisms – for example, developing the targets, publication of a draft policy statement on environmental principles, the establishment of the interim Office for Environmental Protection. However, it is likely that peers will push the government to strengthen these provisions and close potential loopholes. Whether these pass votes in the Commons or the government accepts them remains to be seen.
SW: Last week’s publication of the government’s amendments shows that positive changes can still be made: [for instance] a one word change to the 'state of nature' target in the bill will now see the government need to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030, rather than just considering it as an objective.
What are the key amendments that will be debated?
MB: Whether a specific target should be set for PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) for ambient air quality to align with the World Health Organisation guideline value and the timescale for achieving it (proponents suggest 2030). The current wording in the bill is for the government to set a target. Also, whether the ‘interim’ targets included in environmental improvement plans (EIPs) should be legally binding.
SN: The interim targets for EIPs need to be stronger. At the moment, there are no legal consequences if interim targets are not met, and the secretary of state can set new interim targets if the previous ones look likely to be missed. Having this uncertainty over near-term delivery built into the target setting process undermines the ambition of the long-term targets and creates uncertainty for business delivery.
What should food companies look out for?
SW: The bill does introduce a new prohibition on forest risk commodities (such as soya and palm oil) in business supply chains to reduce the UK’s contribution to global deforestation. However, this is focused on illegal rather than all deforestation, which risks producer countries changing their laws in response, and does not set a firm timetable for action to tackle the UK’s environmental footprint. Amendments have therefore been tabled to introduce a duty to produce a global footprint target timetable and to ensure the review system in the bill is more expansive. This should mean the due diligence system keeps pace with global change.
SN: It is crucial that the single-use plastic clause in the bill is expanded to include all single-use items [not made from plastic]. Otherwise, this may constitute a missed opportunity to drive progress towards government’s ambitions on waste minimisation and reduction. It could also result in unintended consequences, as it would simply shift the environmental burden away from plastics onto other materials.
MB: For businesses in the food sector, a key consideration is how the measures in the environment bill, agriculture act and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 come together in a joined up way. Much will depend on the way specific mechanisms are developed and implemented. Businesses need as much clarity as possible so they can invest with confidence.
Are you hopeful that we will get the bill we need?
SN: There is still the opportunity to strengthen the bill in the House of Lords, and it is critical these concerns are addressed [and amendments made] if the UK is to have the most ambitious environmental programme in the world.
SW: We look forward to working with peers and others to make sure we underpin the bill with strong governance – primarily by strengthening the independence and powers of the Office for Environmental Protection and applying environmental principles to key government policy making on spending and taxation. This will ensure the first dedicated environment bill in over twenty years can stand the test of time and meet the ambitions the government has set out for it.
MB: This is a major piece of legislation which will shape how we manage and improve the natural environment over the coming decades. Although there are improvements that can be made in the coming months – and we will definitely be pushing for them – the real test will be in implementation and ensuring that the mechanisms in the Act lead to significant improvements in the natural environment.