The Right Balance? First Environmental Targets Published

15 February, 2023

On 16 December 2022 DEFRA published the first environmental targets pursuant to the Environment Act 2021 [1].  The Environment Act requires that at least one ‘long-term’ target is set for each of the four priority areas: air, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction [2].  



The Right Balance? First Environmental Targets Published

On 16 December 2022 DEFRA published the first environmental targets pursuant to the Environment Act 2021 [1].  The Environment Act requires that at least one ‘long-term’ target is set for each of the four priority areas: air, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction [2].  



It also requires that targets be set for fine particulate matter and species abundance. Thirteen proposed targets were consulted on between 16 March 2022 and 17 June 2022, with a total of 181,003 responses received from a wide range of individual and organisations, including 76,604 responses via 6 campaigns, 103,275 petition signatures, 660 individual responses and 464 responses from organisations. 

The most consistent criticism from consultees on the proposed targets was that the targets were not ambitious enough. These criticisms are particularly noteworthy given that in its independent assessment of the government’s progress in improving the natural environment in 2021/2022, the Office for Environmental Protection (“OEP”) stated that action so far had failed to bring about the changes needed, at the scale and pace required, to meet the government’s stated ambitions [3].  Of 32 trends across the breadth of the natural environment, nine were improving, eleven were static and eight were deteriorating (with insufficient data to assess four trends). The OEP also assessed 23 environmental targets and found none where the government’s progress was demonstrably on track. The government’s main response to criticisms of the proposed environmental targets was that the proposed targets are as ambitious as possible whilst fulfilling this requirement.

With that context in mind, the published long-term targets are as follows [4] : 

1)    Ensure that species abundance is greater in 2042 than in 2022, and at least 10% greater than 2030. This target had originally proposed a baseline of 2030, but after concerns that this could allow species abundance to be lower in 2042 compared to 2022 the target was amended. Consultees also criticised the target for not being ambitious enough. 

2)    Improve the Red List Index for England for species extinction risk by 2042, compared to 2022 levels. Many consultees criticised this target for a lack of ambition, particularly the failure to specify any percentage target. 

3)    Restore or create in excess of 500,000 hectares of a range of wildlife-rich habitat outside protected sites by 2042, compared to 2022 levels. The OEP stated that the target should specify a net gain and that it would be difficult to accurately monitor this target. The government’s response was that 500,000 hectares was a minimum, not a maximum, and that the data is not available to accurately calculate habitat loss so as to reach a net figure. 

4)    70% of the designated features in the Marine Protection Area (“MPA”) network to be in favourable condition by 2042, with the remainder in recovering condition. Most responses indicated a preference to increase the ambition level or to meet the target sooner. The OEP’s proposal that an additional target to achieve ‘Good Environmental Status’ should be included was rejected as ‘Good Environmental Status’ is set out through the UK Marine Strategy, while the environmental target applies only to England. 

5)    Halve the length of rivers polluted by harmful metals from abandoned mines by 2038, against a baseline of around 1,500km. Most consultees stated that the proposed target was not ambitious enough, although the OEP did not consider this target to be a national priority. The government decided that it would not be feasible to increase the ambition of this target. 

6)    Reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture into the water environment by at least 40% by 2038, compared to a 2018 baseline. A large majority of consultees wanted a more ambitious target, although the OEP commended the proposal and did not suggest any changes. The government’s position is that the target strikes the right balance between ambition and maintaining food production. 

7)    Reduce phosphorus loadings from treated wastewater by 80% by 2038 against a 2020 baseline. Many consultees (including the OEP) wanted to see the scope of this target extended beyond phosphorus. The government’s response was that further research is needed into the impact from nitrogen and that other legislation will require water companies to upgrade their water treatment works.  

8)    Reduce the use of public water supply in England per head of population by 20% by 2037/2038 compared to 2019/2020. Most consultees wanted more ambition and an earlier timeframe. It was also noted that if the population increased sufficiently water consumption could still increase overall. The government preferred this metric because it is more relatable to users and will allow trends to be measured over time. 

9)    Increase total tree and woodland cover from 14.5% of land area now to 16.5% by 2050. This target is less ambitious than the one consulted on, which aimed to hit a target of 17.5%. Although some felt that 17.5% was too low, respondents largely agreed with this target (including the OEP). Having received this response, the government reassessed and decided that 16.5% is the most ambitious target that can be feasibly met. 

10)    Reduce residual waste (excluding major mineral wastes) kg per capita by 50% by 2042 from 2019 levels. Many responses called for greater levels of ambition and for a separate plastic target. The OEP commended the target’s ambition and supported the omission of major mineral wastes but argued that this should be covered by a separate target. 

11)    An Annual Mean Concentration Target for PM2.5 levels in England to be 10 micrograms per cubic metre or below by 2040. A majority of responses, including the OEP, called for greater ambition for this target. Consultation responses noted that one research paper showed that the target could be hit by 2030; others pointed out that World Health Organisation Guidance recommends PM2.5 levels of 5 micrograms or less per cubic metre. The government responded that the WHO Guidance is meant to inform target-setting and does not provide ready-made targets for adoption. 

12)    A Population Exposure Reduction Target for a reduction in PM2.5 population exposure of 35% compared to 2018 to be achieved by 2040. A majority of responses called for greater ambition, although the OEP commended the ambition of the target. This target (which focuses on continuous improvement in all areas) is meant to work in tandem with the Annual Mean Concentration Target (which is supposed to address hotspot locations). 

The Regulations that would implement the published targets [5] were debated in the House of Commons on 23 January and in the House of Lords from 23-25 January. The pattern of debate largely followed a pattern of accusations that the targets are insufficiently ambitious followed by the government defending itself by saying that the targets have to be realistic and capable of being met. For example, Trudy Harrison MP stated for residual waste that ‘Our target to halve residual waste is very ambitious. I also remind Members that the Environment Act 2021 requires the Secretary of State to be satisfied that the targets can be met. Our analysis is therefore based on a credible policy pathway that is feasible to model, and it concludes that a 50% reduction target is at the upper limit of achievability.’ On behalf of the Opposition, Daniel Zeichner MP cited the findings of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which said ‘Public consultation generated significant interest, with a clear majority of respondents (in most cases over 90%) calling for more ambitious targets. We note, however, that despite this feedback, the Department has decided against greater ambition and, with regard to the target for trees and woodland cover, has opted for a target that is less ambitious than that originally proposed during consultation, on the ground that the more ambitious target would be unrealistic.’ On air quality, Caroline Lucas MP added ‘The US had had a stronger legal target than the UK since 2012 and, as we have heard, it is considering making it even more ambitious. The EU Commission has proposed a target of 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030. That is 10 years earlier than the UK is aiming for. It beggars belief that the Minister can stand there and pretend that the target she is putting forward is an ambitious one. It quite simply is not.’ 

Following this debate, on 31 January 2023 DEFRA also published its revised Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 (“EIP”), which explains how the government intends to meet the environmental targets it has set for itself and represents the first review of the overarching 25 Year Environment Plan. The publication of the EIP has already generated substantial interest, and detailed comments from numerous organisations will no doubt be forthcoming. A few of the more eye-catching initiatives in the EIP include the following: 

a)     Proposals to incentivise farmers to adopt nature-friendly practices; 

b)    The publication of a new Green Finance Strategy in 2023; 

c)    The creation or restoration of 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitats; 

d)    A commitment that the public will be able to access green space or water within a 15-minute walk from home. 

Only time will tell if the government’s first set of environmental targets and the EIP have managed to successfully strike the correct balance between ambition and pragmatism. What is already clear, however, is the crucial role of the OEP. The early indications are that the OEP is holding the government robustly to account and that its views are being given significant weight. The OEP is mentioned far more often than other consultees in the Consultation Summary provided by DEFRA, and the views of the OEP were cited repeatedly during parliamentary debate. The OEP itself in response to the published targets said that whilst it would have welcomed more ambition in a few areas (such as air quality) it was satisfied that its advice had been considered and reflected in a number of the final targets. Now that the targets and the EIP have been published, the role of the OEP will only assume greater importance, as attention turns towards monitoring compliance with the new environmental targets.

Michael Feeney is a barrister at Francis Taylor Building practising in environmental, planning and public law.


[1]  This was past the statutory deadline of 31 October 2022, for which DEFRA received criticism from the OEP. For an outline of the Environment Act’s structure see this blog post from Michael Rhimes.
[2]  A target is ‘long-term’ if the specified date is at least 15 years after the date on which the target is set.
[3]  For ELB posts on the OEP’s strategy and enforcement policy, see Ned Westaway ‘Office for Environmental Protection: Lift Off!’ and ‘The OEP: Strategy, Enforcement and early actions
[4]  In addition to these twelve targets there is also the species abundance target required under section 3 of the Environment Act, which is not a long-term target. The species abundance target is that the overall relative species abundance index on 31 December 2030 will indicate that the decline in the abundance of species has been halted. The targets and a summary of the responses can be found here.
[5]  The Draft Environmental Targets (Biodiversity) (England) Regulations 2022, the Draft Environmental Targets (Woodland and Trees Outside Woodland) (England) Regulations 2022, the Draft Environmental Targets (Water) (England) Regulations 2022, the Draft Environmental Targets (Marine Protected Areas) Regulations 2022, the Draft Environmental Targets (Fine Particulate Matter) (England) Regulations 2022 and the Draft Environmental Targets (Residual Waste) (England) Regulations 2022. 

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