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‘A damning assessment’

OEP’s annual progress report reveals government remains largely off track to meet its environmental ambitions
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Sewer pipe leading into water in the countryside

Rishi Sunak has been accused of being ‘all mouth and no trousers’ when it comes to nature protection.

The comment, from Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist Doug Parr, follows a damning assessment from the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) in its annual progress report.

The report reveals that the government remains largely off track to meets its environmental ambitions and must speed up and scale up its efforts in order to achieve them.

‘Deeply, deeply concerning’ trends

The OEP report provides an assessment of government’s progress towards legally binding environmental targets and the goals of its Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP). 

It covers the period 01 April 2022 to 31 March 2023. It also includes content on selected cross-cutting themes, such as nature-friendly farming, and a more in-depth assessment focused on government’s apex goal of achieving ‘thriving plants and wildlife’.

‘While some progress has been made, substantial challenges remain. Our assessment is that government is largely off track to meet its ambitions and its legal obligations.  
‘Deeply, deeply concerning adverse environmental trends continue. With the depleted state of our natural environment and the unprecedented pace of climate change, it does seem to many that we are at a crossroads. It is not easy for us as a nation to choose the right path, the right trajectory and to travel together at the pace needed, but we simply must. 
‘Government must speed up its efforts. Many policies are in the early stages or are long awaited. In some areas the right policies are in place, but now must be implemented quickly and fulsomely. 
‘It must also scale up its efforts. Change has to happen at the right scale, if we are to change the trajectory. We give many examples in our report where scaling up is required.  

‘Lastly, government’s plans must stack up. Government must be clear itself and set out transparently how it will change the nation’s trajectory to the extent now needed, in good time. 
‘This transparency is key. So far, government has not been clear enough about how its ambitions will be delivered – about all that is to be done in each goal area, and against each statutory target, when, and by whom.

‘Delivery bodies, local government, businesses and the environment sector need to know in full, what part they must play. In our view, government must do more to set out for Parliament, the public and all those who must play a role in this how it intends to deliver its ambition. 
‘The trajectory can be changed. There are some areas where things are starting to head in the right direction, showing that with the right actions it can be done.  But more must be done and done at pace.’

Chair of the OEP

4/40 targets on track

The OEP’s assessment of 40 individual environmental targets, including legally binding targets set under the Environment Act 2021, found government is largely on track to achieve four, partially on track to achieve 11, and largely off track to achieve 10.

It was not possible to assess progress against a further 15 targets due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

Targets where government is largely on track relate to specific pollutants and wastewater. Targets where government is largely off track span most EIP goal areas and include residual waste, sustainable fisheries, chemicals and improving nature.   
The OEP’s assessment of 51 recent environmental trends found that 25 trends are improving, 10 are static, eight are deteriorating and eight could not be assessed due to a lack of data.

Most progress has been made on reducing some environmental pressures – such as emissions of some air pollutants, greenhouse gases and chemical pollutants.  
Looking at what this means for progress across the 10 goal areas of the EIP, the OEP concludes that in seven of the 10 goal areas progress has been mixed, and in three progress has been limited.

A nature-depleted UK

In terms of the overall prospects of government meeting its ambitions for significantly improving the natural environment, the OEP concludes that in seven goal areas, including the apex goal of achieving ‘thriving plants and wildlife’, government is largely off track.

‘In two goal areas, government is partially on track (‘clean air’ and ‘reducing the risk of harm from environmental hazards’), and in one area, ‘enhancing beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment’, progress could not be assessed due to a lack of evidence.

‘When it comes to protecting nature, this report proves beyond doubt that Rishi Sunak is all mouth and no trousers. His government has completely failed to take the bold and urgent action required to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. 

‘Sewage still pumps into our seas where marine life also remains severely threatened by destructive fishing – even in so-called marine protected areas. Pesticide use and removal of habitat for ever expanding megafarms has made the UK one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth.

‘And as for the government’s promise to protect at least 30% of the UK’s land and sea by 2030 – it’s nowhere near. A missed opportunity to ratify the Global Oceans Treaty within this parliament also looms large. All this will severely weaken the government’s standing on the world stage as well as at home. 

‘With an election just around the corner, the prime minister will need to pull out all the stops if he’s to convince voters that nature is truly a priority for his government, but he’s rapidly running out of time.’

Chief scientist at Greenpeace UK

What’s stopping progress?

The report identifies factors impeding progress.
Key policies, strategies and regulatory frameworks are announced and anticipated, but not then developed or delivered.

For example, major initiatives such as a Chemicals Strategy and a Land Use Framework are long awaited. This creates uncertainty, presents barriers to progress and results in missed opportunities.

Actions are not addressing all major pressures. For example, for water quality, commitments to investment have increased substantially in some but not all areas of need.

Resources are not always allocated as needed, even when tools and actions are well understood.

For example, there is an approach in place for tackling invasive non-native species, but resources are inadequate to implement actions at the scale required to achieve desired outcomes. 

The urgency with which positive actions are being implemented is frequently lacking. For example, the current rate of tree planting needs to substantially increase to achieve woodland creation goals.
The report reaffirms the key recommendations the OEP made following last year’s assessment of progress, and makes further detailed recommendations for each goal area of the EIP.

‘This is a damning assessment from the OEP. Clearly the Government’s environmental plans are too vague, too weak and too late to meet both its own commitments and the promises it made to the world last year.

‘This should be a wakeup call for the Government to produce a much stronger national plan for meeting the global nature goals it signed up to, and save the precious nature we all depend on.” 
In this election year every political party needs to up their ambition and clearly show how they will bring our world back to life.’

Head of Policy (Production) at WWF

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