The Environment Bill – one of Boris Johnson’s flagship pieces of legislation – has been delayed by at least six months after the government ran out of time to pass it in the current parliamentary session.
On Tuesday the bill had been due to begin its report stage, where it is scrutinised and debated in parliament, but this has now been pushed back to later in the spring while the government tries to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
The landmark legislation will introduce, for the first time, a broad range of legal targets for air quality, biodiversity, water quality, and waste reduction, but will now be brought back to parliament at the start of the next session, in May, and is expected to receive Royal Assent – at which point it will take effect – by Autumn this year.
The timing means it may only just scrape through parliament ahead of the UK’s hosting of the Cop26 UN climate conference, scheduled to take place in Edinburgh in November.
MPs from parties including Labour, the Greens and the Conservatives are all backing various amendments to the bill, relating to levels of air quality targets, food import standards, protections for species, removing deforestation from supply chains, rules on use of toxic pesticides, and planning permission, among others.
Before the delay to the bill was confirmed, Labour’s shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard warned the government against pushing it further back.
He said: “In the year when Britain is hosting the Cop26 climate talks, it sends all the wrong messages about the government’s approach to the climate crisis.
“We don’t need a go-slow government on the environment, we need one that recognises the urgency of the crisis and doesn’t go backwards, like they’re doing by lifting the ban on bee-killing pesticides.”
Environmental campaign groups and charities have reacted with disappointment to the bill’s delay.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Kierra Box said: “Boris Johnson’s flagship environment bill was already riddled with loopholes and omissions, and it now appears to be listing badly.
“This delay is not the action of a government wanting to demonstrate world leadership on the environmental crisis.
“Ministers must get on with the urgent task of cutting pollution, improving biodiversity, and stemming the flow of plastic waste pouring into our environment.”
Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, said at the current rate of progress on the legislation, the next generation will have to “clean up the mess”.
She said: “Time and time again the government tells us that ‘urgent action’ is needed to restore nature, that it will ‘build back greener’ and that we can’t afford to ‘dither and delay’. What then is it playing at by delaying the most important piece of environmental legislation for decades?
“This bill was supposed to leave our environment in a better state for the next generation, but at this rate it’ll be the next generation who have to clean up the mess. With the global biodiversity summit later this year, and the UK hosting the global climate conference, we should be raising our environmental standards and setting an example for others to follow, rather than allowing the nature crisis to continue to spiral.”
Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “The Environment Bill was supposedly the star of the government’s legislative programme and, with all eyes on the UK ahead of Cop26, ministers should be prioritising our planet if we are to walk the talk as global leaders.
“We need a guarantee that this will be the first piece of legislation out of the box and completed in the next parliamentary session, and that the government will use the intervening time to improve the bill. This includes adopting a legally-binding target to make UK supply chains deforestation-free by 2023, and adding a target to halve the UK’s global footprint by 2030.”
Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “It is a real blow that the Environment Bill has been delayed yet again. While it is understandable the government is focusing on dealing with pandemic in these unprecedented times, air pollution is a national health crisis too that isn’t going away and must not be pushed aside.
“Toxic air contributes to 36,000 premature deaths every year and blights the lives of the millions of people in the UK with lung conditions such as asthma and COPD.”
She added: “The devastating impact of Covid-19 has shown the importance of having healthy lungs. We urge the government to use this delay to scale up the ambition in the bill and set out world-leading health targets on air pollution, in line with World Health Organisation guidelines, and for these to be met by 2030 at the latest.”
Beccy Speight, the RSPB’s chief executive, urged the government to “get our house in order” ahead of the international climate summit.
She said: “Our only hope is that this delay is used to improve the bill. Environmental groups including the RSPB have made a series of measured and sensible improvements, such as legally binding targets to turn the tide on the loss of nature, and these should now be seriously considered.
“These changes would help us get our own house in order at a time when the prime minister wants to show international leadership in the run-up to the key global biodiversity and climate summits later this year.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts described the delay as “deeply troubling”, and said it would “raise questions” over the government’s commitment to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.
He said: “Recently, the prime minister explicitly committed to taking urgent action to put nature on a path to recovery by 2030 as part of the UN ‘Decade of Action’. But over a year into the decade, very little progress has been made. To make up for lost time, the government must substantially ramp-up its environmental ambition. This must start with putting a legally-binding target to reverse nature’s decline by 2030 on the face of the Environment Bill when it returns, and proper funding for landscape recovery to deliver it.”
Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “As the UK establishes its environmental status post-Brexit, the Environment Bill is crucial to halting the decline of nature, stemming the flow of plastic waste into our countryside, tackling air pollution and the climate emergency.
“The world is looking to the UK government for bold leadership as we prepare to host the international COP26 climate summit later this year. So, delaying the Environment Bill again is unacceptable. This government’s climate credentials are in danger of being characterised little more than hot air and warm words.”