The UK government has undermined talks at the Cop15 biodiversity conference by failing to set targets for water quality or habitat protections in England, campaigners have said.
Environmental experts have been disappointed by the delayed legally binding targets mandated by the 2021 Environment Act, which were released on Friday, six weeks after the deadline.
Not only do they fail to set overall targets for river health and protected sites, the targets are weaker than those set out in the consultation. For example, the consultation recommended an increase in tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% to 17.5% of total land area in England by 2050. The new target is 16.5%. Water pollution targets have also been delayed from 2037 to 2038, giving an extra year for rivers to be polluted with nutrients and chemicals.
The environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, announced the targets as part of a six-minute talk to delegates at Cop15 in Montreal, in which she spoke mainly about the oceans and said she was “a big fan of science”.
She said: “Today in the UK, I’ve announced our new legally binding environmental targets will include the restoration of 70% of designated features in marine protected areas to get them back to favourable condition – because we have to keep sight of the magnitude of the environmental challenge that we face.” Coffey has no further speaking engagements scheduled at Cop15.
Some have argued that it is unhelpful to the international negotiations, where the UK is urging other countries to protect 30% of their land and sea for nature, when it is not setting itself overall targets.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “I’ve got to say the UK negotiators are doing a good job at CBD [Cop15], but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published targets that undermine that. It is massively disappointing.”
Campaigners are also angry that the targets were slipped out on a Friday afternoon, when parliament is not sitting and the environment secretary is abroad, so they cannot be debated in the Commons.
Bennett said: “The idea that they are being published at a time when the secretary of state is not available to comment, and not able to answer questions about them in parliament is pretty poor – there are many other times they could have done that.”
There has been widespread disappointment among green policy experts, who were hoping the targets would include overall measures for water quality and protected sites.
Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Environment Act targets are more than political aspirations. They are meant to provide legal certainty, clarity for business, and shared purpose across government. So a package without targets for protected sites and overall water quality is a job half done.”
Ruth Chambers of the Greener UK coalition added: “It is good to see the secretary of state work hard to publish these targets after missed deadlines, but the absence of targets for things like river health and protected sites for nature makes no sense. These are two of our most pressing problems.
“We now need the government to show how they will meet the new targets and plug the gaps where no targets exist at all.”
These targets may have to be redrawn, as they may not deliver a significant enough environmental improvement. Benwell added: “In January, Defra is legally required to review whether the targets would deliver a significant environmental improvement. The 2030 target to halt the decline of species is a real positive, but without protected sites and water quality targets, the package does not live up to that test. Defra should commit to consult and fill these gaps without delay.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson, said: “Once again, the Conservative government has demonstrated just how shortsighted and irresponsible they really are … The environment secretary has a duty to protect our planet for future generations, but has once again kicked this responsibility into the long grass. Weakening these targets is an embarrassment and a betrayal. The government must U-turn immediately.”
The targets appeared to be rushed out after the government was chided by the new post-Brexit environmental regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), for missing the October deadline. Dame Glenys Stacey, the OEP chair, previously told Coffey that the possibility of taking formal enforcement action against the government over multiple missed targets was being kept under active review. The OEP can launch an investigation and take legal action if it deems it necessary.
Coffey said: “We are committed to leaving our natural world in a better state for future generations, and today we are laying the foundations that will help deliver on this commitment.
“These targets are ambitious and will be challenging to achieve – but they will drive our efforts to restore our natural environment, protect our much-loved landscapes and green spaces and marine environment, as well as help tackle climate change.”