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Combating the climate crisis: Environment Act 2021

14 December 2021

The Environment Act 2021 (EA) provides a world leading environmental programme for the UK to combat the environmental and climate crisis we are currently facing.  It sets an innovative and ambitious domestic framework for environmental governance including commitments to secure improvement on air and water quality, biodiversity, and resource efficiency.   

The EA will be instrumental in achieving the aims of the 25 Year Environment Plan, a policy paper first issued by the government in January 2018 setting out proposals for government action in respect of the environment in England.

As most environmental law is derived from EU law there were concerns that Brexit would result in a weakening of environmental standards in the UK.  The EA shows the government's commitment to maintaining environmental protections. 

To drive forward the environmental change the EA contains provision for new legally binding environmental targets to be set in each of the areas of air quality, water quality, biodiversity and resource efficiency.  These long-term targets must be set by 31 October 2022.  The newly formed Office for Environmental Protection will hold government and public bodies to account on their environmental obligations.

Air quality:

Air quality has a direct impact on public health and whilst air pollution has improved significantly in recent decades the government recognises that it remains a significant public health concern.  To this end the EA includes:

  • a target to reduce the level of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in ambient air
  • a requirement that local authorities consider when proposing a development the impact on the air quality of an area
  • local authorities can impose financial penalties in smoke control areas and smoke from private dwellings can be enforced as a statutory nuisance
  • powers for Secretary of State to recall products. such as vehicles or parts of a vehicle that don't meet the relevant legal emissions standard

Water quality:

Using less water is key to managing our impact in this area.   One person, in England, on average uses 141 litres of water per day,  21% of public water supply is lost in leakage and a further 21% is non-household use.  Despite water quality improving in recent decades, progress has stalled in recent years in the face of continuing pressure on the water environment from human activity.   The EA contains provisions to protect the resilience and supply of water including:

  • reducing water demand
  • two or more water undertakers can be directed to prepare joint proposals with ideas on how water undertakers can work collaboratively to improve management and development of water reserves and meet current and future demand
  • discharge from storm overflows is targeted with a requirement for plans to reduce discharge from storm overflows and the adverse impact of this to be made. The Environment Agency is to report annually on operation of storm overflows
  • drainage and sewerage management planning is made a statutory duty

Biodiversity and the natural environment:

In its Environment Plan the government committed to protecting and enhancing England’s biodiversity on land, in freshwater and at sea. Over the last century a lot of England's wildlife-rich habitat has been lost and despite progress habitats have remained in poor condition and are getting worse.  There has been a widespread loss of species.  The EA provides a structure within which to meet the biodiversity goal in the 25 Year Environment Plan.  This includes:

  • introducing a species abundancy target
  • clamping down on illegal deforestation and protect rainforests by ensuring that greater traceability and sustainability are built into the UK's supply chains
  • putting a duty on local authorities to consult on street tree felling
  • the use of conservation covenants to bind landowners with agreements which have a conservation purpose
  • biodiversity net gain to ensure developments deliver at least 10% increase in biodiversity and a biodiversity net gain sites register
  • biodiversity credits which allow developers to purchase a credit for the purpose of meeting a biodiversity gain objective
  • 'Protected Site Strategies' and 'Species Conservation Strategies' to support the design and delivery of strategic approaches to deliver better outcomes for nature.
  • 'Local Nature Recovery Strategies' to support a Nature Recovery Network

For the impact of these provisions on developers, please see our earlier here.

Resource efficiency:

Tackling plastic pollution, the EA looks to ensure that more of what we consume is recycled and reused.  Some of the ways that businesses and people will be incentivised to recycle are:

  • a 'Deposit Return Scheme' for drinks containers, where consumers will pay a deposit when purchasing the drink which is returned when the empty container is taken to a return point hosted by retailers
  • 'Extended Producer Responsibility' for packaging, manufacturers will need to consider the complete life cycle of their packaging at design stage as they will be responsible for 100% of the costs of disposal of products starting with plastic packaging,  higher fees will be levied if packaging is harder to reuse or recycle
  • major waste sector reforms with consistency of recycling collections for all households and businesses

The EA will also deliver a cycle of environmental monitoring and reporting, with 'Environmental Improvement Plans' – including interim targets and 'Environmental Principles' embedded in domestic policy making.  It embeds the environment into the design, development and delivery of the Government's work.

It forms part of the law of England and Wales but applies to England only.  About half of the provisions extend and apply to Wales, with a significant number extending to GB, UK or England Wales and Northern Ireland. 

The different sectors affected by the EA are diverse.  DWF will be reporting on the sector specific issues shortly.

For more information or advice on the Environment Act and how it may affect you or your business please contact Melanie Williams, Real Estate Sector Lead or David Egan, Partner Regulatory, Compliance and Investigations.

Further Reading