Will the Environment Bill protect and restore the nation’s natural capital?

Last month, after many delays, the Environment Bill returned to Parliament. Commentators worry that the Bill’s slow progress betray a weakening of the government’s environmental ambition.
Field of sunflowers

Last month, after many delays, the Environment Bill returned to Parliament. Commentators worry that the Bill’s slow progress (it was first introduced to Parliament almost 18 months ago) betray a weakening of the Government’s environmental ambition. The government has previously described the Bill as a “landmark bill” containing “world-leading” policies, which would realise 2018’s 25-Year Environment Plan aim to “become the first generation to leave that environment in a better state than we found it”. But is this still the case?

The Bill has a wide scope and introduces many new policies, from biodiversity net gain to conservation covenants to the creation of a new regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). While some improvements are needed (such as including heritage and changing proposals around water abstraction licences), overall the CLA welcomes the framework and ambition of the Bill, the need for which has only become clearer during its long gestation period.

One important question to consider is how much the Environment Bill will help to drive forward the natural capital agenda, which the CLA has been promoting. Earlier this year, the Dasgupta Review into the economics of biodiversity made clear how important it is, for both the planet and society, to align economic decision-making with environmental objectives. Doing so will also create opportunities for CLA members who manage these natural capital assets.

The Bill goes some way towards doing this, introducing a system of long-term targets and environmental improvement plans which should also give business the certainty to plan for the future. The CLA has been working with the Broadway Initiative to help develop a sectoral approach to environmental targets, looking at how the agriculture and land use sector can help to deliver targets relating to biodiversity, air quality and water.

The Bill also introduces Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS), which will be prepared by local authorities across England. These strategies will be used to guide funding, including from the Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes and biodiversity net gain. While the CLA has had concerns about the capacity of local authorities to produce these strategies; if they are done well, they could act as a local statement of intent for how businesses, public bodies and communities can protect and enhance their natural capital. By aligning policies and funding they could also make life simpler for farmers and land managers on the ground, who after all will be tasked with delivering many of these environmental priorities. A key question will be to what extent private sector investors buy into these LNRSs, unlocking further investment.

There is still much work for the government to do in this area, from measuring our natural capital baseline; agreeing standard metrics; and ensuring emerging carbon and environmental markets are well-regulated. Our work as part of the Financing UK Nature Recovery project is developing a clearer list of what the government needs to do. The framework set out in the Environment Bill, and many of the policies within it, are an important first step.