Since it was first announced in 2018, a significant number of stakeholders have argued that the Environment Bill is too weak on its environmental protections and that the OEP will lack the power that the European Commission has in terms of holding the UK government to account.
The Environment Bill is closely linked to the UK's efforts in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and improving the natural environment on a more general basis. It is also seen by many as a key diplomatic tool with which the UK could potentially leverage off from at COP26 to demonstrate the UK's leadership in connection with the Environment. However, a failure to implement the Environment Bill in advance of COP26 could be interpreted as a failure by the UK to get its own house in order, making it increasingly difficult to convince other parties that they should take the conference seriously.
The proposed amendments
The House of Lords have made a number of new amendments to the Environment Bill which will be debated and likely rejected by the House of Commons upon the Bill's return later this month, following the Government's strong signals. Lord Teverson, the chair of the now-defunct Lord's EU Environment Sub-Committee, proposed that the bill be headed with a formal declaration of biodiversity and climate emergency, both domestic and globally, which would underpin the Environment Bill and bring its themes together.
A selection of other proposed amendments to the Environment Bill would include the following changes:
- Soil Health - ensure soil health and quality are a priority area for environmental improvement;
- Air Quality – fine particulate matter quality targets which, so far as practicable, should follow World Health Organization guidelines (with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest);
- OEP - ensure the OEP is as independent as possible from the actions of the government and other government departments; and
- Single Use Materials - enable regulations to be made on charges for single use items, including plastic. This would provide the government with a tool to address single use culture and prevent existing materials being replaced by alternatives which cause environmental harm.
Further amendments are likely as the Environment Bill continues to be debated and these changes are likely to lead to delays in connection with implementation as and when any amendments are rejected and these are subject to debate. The alternative approach would be for the House of Commons just to accept the House of Lord's amendments; however no indication of this approach has been given to date.
Any rejection of the amendments may send the wrong message to other world leaders in advance of COP26, which is particularly relevant given the upcoming talks between the UK, China and thirty other countries in hopes of breaking the global inertia on action before COP26.
Will last minute negotiations bear fruit?
The Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, is set to convene an "informal meeting" with the leaders of over 30 countries including the president of China, Xi Jinping, at the UN general assembly in New York on 20 September.
This meeting follows COP26 President, Alok Sharma, recently meeting Special Representative Xie Zhenhua of China to discuss President Xi Jinping’s commitments to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, peak emissions before 2030, and its proposed reduction in coal usage.
Though Xie described his meetings with Sharma as "candid, in-depth and constructive", they produced no new concrete emission reduction measures or commitments from China. The Prime Minister is anticipated to press Xi Jinping to reduce its emissions targets and take further measure to cut its use of coal. However, given the UK's own decision to cut international aid earlier this year and the difficulties it is facing in passing its own Environment Bill, it could be argued by China that the UK is not practicing what it is preaching.
International diplomatic efforts are critical to ensuring the success of COP26, however heightened tension between the US and China is seen as potentially one of the most significant barriers to ensuring its success.
While the US remains the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, China has been since around 2005 the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and therefore both countries are critical to setting an example at COP26 for other smaller emitters to follow.
There are concerns, however, that China is wavering in its commitment to reduce emissions, particularly as the country's 14th 5-year plan, which was produced in March 2021, lacked the strong climate ambition that leaders were expecting. Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International said, “the world needs China to move to keep 1.5C alive. Action by China, as the world’s biggest emitter, is fundamental. Decisions by the Chinese now have a huge influence on the wellbeing of the planet and our future.”
Last year China pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, building on their commitment to aim for peak emissions around 2030. Though these commitments mark a strong improvement on previous plans, they are still considered to be insufficient to ensure global emissions are halved by 2030, which scientists say is needed to keep within 1.5C.
It is difficult to know at this stage whether these last minute talks are likely to lead to firmer commitments in advance of COP26. Given how close we are to the historic conference, any signals that there is positive momentum going into November will be welcome relief for many stakeholders.