Government sets out new targets on air quality, water pollution, waste and woodland cover

Image credit: Colin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

The UK government announced new environmental targets in four key areas of air quality, water, waste reduction and woodland cover on 16 March. While subject to consultation, the revised targets are to be incorporated into the Environment Act, which became law on 10 November last year.

These targets need to be laid as draft statutory instruments by 31 October 2022, says the consultation document, and will come into force once approved by Parliament.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the proposed targets are “intended to set a clear, long-term plan for nature’s recovery.”

“In a post EU era, we now have the freedom to move towards a system that focuses on nature’s recovery as well as its preservation, and which places more emphasis on science and less emphasis on legal process. This change in approach will help us in the pursuit of the targets we are setting under the Environment Act.’”

Air quality
On air quality, the government has proposed a legally-binding target to halve the levels of PM2.5 particulate pollution in the air from 20 μg/m3 to 10 μg/m3 by 2040, in addition to a 35% reduction in population exposure to PM2.5 by 2040, compared to levels in 2018.

Observers appeared mostly critical of the announcement, with many saying it didn’t go far enough.

Kate Nield of environmental law firm ClientEarth said the target date was “far from ‘world-leading’”.

Ben Richardson, Chief Executive of SulNOx, a firm providing fuel conditioners and fuel additives for emissions reduction, said: “The limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air was recommended by the World Health Organization back in 2005, and that was reduced to 5 last year after evidence that particles harm human health at much lower concentrations than previously thought.”

Evidence of the pubic health problem presented by PM2.5 includes a doubling of hospital admissions for lung conditions in England and Wales over the last 20 years or so, from 1,535 per 100,000 in 1999 to 3,143 per 100,000 in 2019.

Water quality
The target proposals to improve water quality and availability address pollution from abandoned mines, nutrient pollution and water demand.

On mines pollution, the target is described as to “reduce the length of rivers and estuaries polluted by target substances from abandoned mines by 50% by 2037 against a baseline of around 1,500km.”

On nutrient pollution, the new targets are to “reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture to the water environment by at least 40% by 2037 against a 2018 baseline” – 2018 being the most recent year where data is available. In addition, to “reduce phosphorus loadings from treated wastewater by 80% by 2037 against a 2020 baseline.”

Nutrient pollution, which arises from the run-off from agricultural land, is already being addressed by a number of measures in development, the document said, including “voluntary, incentivised and regulatory policy mechanisms” as well as things like the Catchment Sensitive Farming Partnership.

“At present, we are not seeing significant change as fast as we need in order to achieve our environmental ambitions,” said the document, so the new target is intended to provide additional focus.

On water demand, the document cited the problems of increased demand and reduced water availability from less predictable precipitation as a result of climate change. The proposed target is to “reduce the use of public water supply in England per head of population by 20% by 2037 against a 2019/20 baseline.”

Woodland cover
While the government says it is already “committed to increasing the planting rates in England beyond the current rate of approximately 2,100 hectares per year”.

The new proposed target is to “increase tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% to 17.5% of total land area in England by 2050”. This “would represent a step-change in woodland creation which would mean 420,000 more hectares of tree cover in England”.

The document said this “could sequester a total of 170 million tonnes carbon dioxide by the end of the century, equivalent to around half the UK’s CO2 emissions in 2020.”

Residual waste
The targets consultation also includes proposals to reduce residual waste (excluding major mineral wastes) kg per capita by 50% by 2042. The document proposes that this will be measured as a reduction from 2019 levels, which are estimated to be approximately 560 kg per capita.

In 2019, 29 million tonnes of waste (excluding major mineral wastes) were sent to landfill, energy recovery or incinerated, with nearly half landfilled, says the document. In the same year, approximately 3 million tonnes of waste were sent for energy recovery treatment overseas.

Major mineral wastes comprise “largely inert waste categories from construction and demolition, and excavation andmining activities,” says the consultation.

“This focus will ensure attention on where the environmental impact is greatest, and where our evidence is strongest. The large tonnages associated with major mineral wastes would also risk perverse outcomes if they were included, because the target could be achieved more easily by focussing on these wastes rather than those we believe have greater environmental impact”.