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The Environment Bill falls far short of what's needed to protect the environment

We will not properly protect the environment and nature unless we address the underlying cause of environmental destruction, writes Caroline Lucas MP. | PA Images

4 min read

My amendment to the Bill would kick-start the process of replacing GDP as the key measure of economic progress with the health of the natural environment.

It hasn’t taken long from the end of the Brexit transition period for the environmental protections we had as members of the EU to be chipped away, watered-down or simply abandoned.

We were told by ministers we’d be getting a “Green Brexit in which environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced”.  The opposite is happening, as the Environment Bill makes clear.

The only amendment accepted by the government at committee stage were their own and as a result, what’s on offer falls far short of maintaining our previous environmental protections, much less of enhancing them, nor will there be proper enforcement of our laws unless the government’s green watchdog is redesigned.

The new Office for Environmental Protection is being presented as a new independent watchdog.  It’s more like a ministerial lapdog, kept on a tight leash with ministers given the power to steer the OEP by offering “guidance” on enforcing environmental breaches – guidance which the OEP must consider.  

The government will also control the OEP’s board and budget. This is a far cry from independence as the Secretary of State revealed when he told the Today programme in October that the government didn’t want regulators who “make it up as they go along” or “change their approach entirely”.

The Bill sets out important environmental principles, including prevention of harm and “polluter pays” but without a duty on all public authorities to act in accordance with a currently unpublished policy statement and with major opt outs for the Ministry of Defence and for Treasury and spending decisions. That represents far weaker protection than we had as members of the EU and could mean that parts of government choose to cast aside environmental protections whenever these prove inconvenient.

The bill provides a framework to set legally binding targets on air, water, biodiversity and waste and the Secretary of State is required to ensure that targets are met – but there is no sense of urgency to start taking action now, nor to take remedial action where targets are missed.  And they are being missed. According to the RSPB, of the 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed on 11 years ago, the UK is failing to meet 17 of them and actually going backwards on six.

GDP is not fit for purpose as a measure of progress, particularly at a time of climate and ecological emergency and widening inequality

But however strong the targets and principles in this Bill might be, we will not properly protect the environment and nature unless we address the underlying cause of environmental destruction: the focus on short-term profit and endless economic growth on a finite planet. 

That’s the elephant in the room that one of my amendments would address: by requiring the government to prepare a strategy for the adoption of new economic goals to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing.  It’s been supported by MPs from two other political parties at the time of writing.

GDP is not fit for purpose as a measure of progress, particularly at a time of climate and ecological emergency and widening inequality. It tells us nothing about people’s quality of life nor the number of species threatened with extinction.  Yet GDP growth remains the over-riding economic goal.

What matters to people is their health and wellbeing, secure jobs and, as has become even more apparent during coronavirus, the health of the environment and nature.  This is what our economy should be serving and what should be the standard measurement for all policy-making.

Leading business voices agree.  The Business for Nature coalition says: “Governments, companies and financial organisations would take better decisions if they used information beyond short-term profit and GDP that includes impacts and dependencies on nature”.

The government needs to catch up if it’s serious about tackling the nature and climate crises. My amendment would kick-start that process of replacing GDP as the key measure of economic progress with better goals including the health of the natural environment. It would also address the impact of UK consumption on the global environment, whether that’s through the supply chains of fast fashion or the deforestation linked to animal feed for the meat on UK supermarket shelves. 

This would start to deliver the paradigm shift that leading economists, commissioned by the OECD, called for: reprogramming the economy to focus not on GDP growth but environmental sustainability, reducing inequality, strengthening economic resilience and improving wellbeing.

This should be the overarching goal of government – a wellbeing economy that meets people’s needs in a sustainable way, and within the Earth’s natural limits. It’s an approach which is already being adopted by other countries. The UK needs to join them – the Environment Bill is a good place to start that journey.


Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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Read the most recent article written by Caroline Lucas MP - Climate and nature must go hand in hand in our fight for net-zero