At last the government has published its long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan, its long-term vision for how we can be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state. All businesses depend on nature, so what does it mean for them? Here’s our pick of the key commitments – and gaps – in the plan, along with viewpoints from some of our friends in the private sector.
In a sign of how seriously the government is taking the environment, it was the Prime Minster herself who launched the plan. It’s ambitious in parts and the top-line narrative is strong, reflecting the change in pace and ambition at Defra since Michael Gove arrived as Environment Secretary.
The commitment to natural capital thinking is significant, and the focus on recovering nature is welcome, as is the incredibly important commitment to address the UK’s international footprint. But there are also omissions.
The view from the Board
Steve Robertson, Chief Executive Officer at Thames Water says:
“At board level, the long-term view offered by the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan is incredibly valuable. It gives us the certainty to invest in a network that will protect our vital natural capital as well as provide the level of service our customers rightly expect. By incorporating a fully integrated natural capital approach we can plan and make decisions based on detailed cost-benefit analysis that will provide true value to society and the environment, as well as ensuring the long-term investment needed to keep our water pipes and sewers flowing.
“This plan also creates the space for the really big decisions – decisions that require a social discourse – to be made that are rightly beyond the remit of any individual company. I would have liked to have seen more examples of the types of legislation that have the capacity to change social norms, such as the plastic bag charge or seatbelt laws, as this is undoubtedly the next step in getting a real grip on improving environmental health.”
A new Green Business Council
The government says it will establish a new Green Business Council, something NGOs and business alike have been calling for. It offers the opportunity for the government to work with business to discover, define and address natural capital risks down their supply chains.
The likes of HSBC, Aldersgate Group and Bank of England are currently members of the Green Finance Taskforce and these platforms offer an invaluable, two-way exchange of solutions and knowledge. The new council will have many challenges to address, and this is a clear signal that the government wants to work with the private sector to develop and deliver environmental improvement for the next 25 years.
The Plan also talks of establishing an international global resource initiative in 2018 to work with businesses, NGOs, producer countries and intermediary countries to identify actions across supply chains that will improve the sustainability of products and reduce deforestation overseas. This is a welcome move as we don’t want action at home to unwittingly generate more environmental damage overseas.
Market and regulatory interventions are missing
Overall we would like to have seen a much stronger commitment to regulatory and market interventions.
Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group says…
“In order for the vision behind the plan to translate into concrete investments in the natural environment, the government will need to set clear, measurable objectives for improvements in different parts of our natural environment and will need to consider targeted market interventions to support private investment.
“This may, for example, include setting up one or more funds in complex or novel natural capital projects, introducing regulations that incentivise investment in restoring specific parts of the natural environment (for example peatland) and updating its public procurement policy to favour businesses that can demonstrate a clear resource efficient approach in the way they deliver services and goods to government.”
Environmental net-gain is a bonus
The intention to put the environment at the heart of planning and development is crucial for social and biodiversity improvements. With the onus being on the planning authorities, we hope this will create locally-led restoration of nature. We welcome the commitment to strengthen net environmental gain requirements, but wait to see how strong these requirements will actually be and what ‘necessary’ exemptions will entail.
Steve Smith, Technical Director at Aecom says…
“The principle of environmental net-gain will allow developers and industry to take the lead on environmental restoration. This is a significant step in ensuring that planning for housing and infrastructure, and the prevention and control of pollution not only positions this plan to prevent biodiversity losses but it will allow for the restoration of nature that is critically needed to improve our environmental health.”
Protecting our oceans
The commitments aimed at tackling plastic waste have been grabbing the headlines – and rightly so, with eight million tonnes of it dumped in the ocean every year causing untold damage to animals and ecosystems. They are a step in the right direction and businesses that depend on healthy seas will welcome them. But these measures must be the start of a wider approach to ending plastic pollution across our economy.
Businesses will also welcome the reaffirmed commitment to delivering ‘good environmental status’ and the recognition of the importance of the UK Marine Strategy to coordinate activities and deliver conservation objectives. This is supported by the positive proposal to integrate fisheries into marine planning and we look forward to seeing a Fisheries Bill that can deliver the sustainable fisheries management set out in the plan. And of course we can all get behind the Sustainable Development Goal wording to significantly reduce marine plastics but this does need to have meaningful targets and actions. It is also a good step to see a commitment to more MPAs, but we need greater ambition for them to be well managed.
Clean and plentiful water
Water supply companies and many other business sectors rely on healthy rivers and wetlands. Overall, this plan is a step in the right direction, but to transform the health of the freshwater environment further work is needed to develop and strengthen the ambitions and actions. In particular, the ambition to improve three quarters of waters to be close to their natural state “as soon as is practicable” is ambiguous and could very well slip without a robust definition.
It’s good to see an expectation for companies to produce wastewater management plans, and the new farming rules for water. However, evidence suggests that these rules will only tackle a fraction of agricultural pollution. This is an issue for water companies who must pay to clean up water sources polluted by farms. The new environmental land management scheme must therefore be ambitious, driving investment in land practices that no longer damage rivers, and underpinned by strong regulatory enforcement.
The plans to address unsustainable abstraction and modernise the abstraction system are welcome, but statutory environmental limits are needed to give companies certainty to drive water efficiency and sharing, and ensure rivers remain flowing.
Now to turn ambition into reality
This plan is an important first step, but it will need to be backed-up by significant investment, and we would like to have seen an indication of where these funds will come from.
Karen Ellis, Interim Director of Science and Policy at WWF says…
“We all depend on nature, from the UK and overseas, and its degradation is causing misery due to ill-health, flooding and pollution, and costing the UK millions of pounds. The indication of Natural Capital financing is good. However, we don’t know the level of investment that is needed to deliver this plan and there is also little clarity on what public money will be available. The Plan talks of leveraging private finance for investment in nature, but will need to put in place appropriate incentives to make this happen at the scale needed.”
The plan could be a turning point for the UK’s relationship with the environment, where we begin to restore nature rather than destroy it. What remains to be seen is how it will be delivered on the ground. How will the ideas – of which there are many – be implemented and integrated? How are social and environmental factors considered together in order to drive sustainable economic growth?
The 25 Year Environment Plan is good on paper, and we all look forward to working with the government going forward, to help ensure that the next generation is handed an environment in a far better state then the one we see today.
More details on WWFs reaction to the 25 Year Environment Plan can be found here