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Developments in the Second Reading of the Environment Bill

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On the 26th February 2020, the Environment Bill 2019-2020 passed its second reading in a debate opened by Secretary of State for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, The Rt. Hon. George Eustice. This follows the Bill’s first reading, which went ahead without debate, on the 30th January 2020.

Developments in the Second Reading of the Environment Bill

Existing environmental targets are largely derived from European Union law; therefore this Bill sets out a new domestic framework for environmental governance and addressing the current environmental and climate crisis. The Environment Bill 2019-2020 will inevitably bring a high level of change to food production across the UK.

The Environment Bill 2019-2020 focuses on key environmental issues including improving the natural environment; reporting on environmental protection; the introduction of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP); waste and resource efficiency; air quality; recall of products that fail to meet environmental standards; water; nature and biodiversity; conservation covenants; and the regulation of chemicals. The Bill aims to make the environmental considerations central to policymaking and positions the OEP as a replacement for the European Commission. The principle objectives of the OEP are to protect and improve the natural environment.

The government has already taken action in some of these areas, for example by committing to the UN Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3 to reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 50% by 2030 and announcing its intention to eliminate avoidable waste by 2050. Additionally, on the 27th June 2019, the government acted to address climate change by setting a legally binding target to reach net zero emissions by 2050; making the UK the first major economy to pass a net-zero emissions law. The Environment Bill is the next step in the government’s response to the scientific case, and increasing demand, for a change in environmental protection and recovery.

Highlights of the Second Reading

Conservation covenants

To fulfil the commitments made in the 25 Year Environment Plan, during February and March 2019, the government sought views on how to best introduce environmental covenants. Defra defines a conservation covenant as a ‘private voluntary agreement between a landowner and a “responsible” body, such as a conservation charity, government body or local authority. It delivers lasting conservation benefit for the public good. A covenant sets out obligations in respect of the land which will be legally binding not only on the landowner but on subsequent owners of the land’. During the second reading, Mr Eustice stressed the permanence of the conservation covenants, noting that “Landowners will be able to agree on conservation covenants with charities and other bodies, so they can be assured that subsequent landowners will be required to continue the sustainable stewardship they have started.”

New additions to the Bill

Three new additions to the Bill were highlighted. The first is that all future legislation will need to be opened with a statement on whether they will cause a reduction to the existing levels of environmental protection. Secondly, the Bill introduces a new power to end the export of ‘polluting plastic waste’ to non-OECD countries. The third addition is that the government will be required to ‘take stock’ of significant developments in international environmental legislation biennially and publish a review of these. The Rt. Hon. Deidre Brock later commented that the Ministry of Defence, national security and tax are currently exempt from this final clause.

Concern around the global impact

The Rt. Hon. Ben Lake noted “concerns that the Bill does not focus enough on the UK’s global footprint” and recommended the inclusion of a mandatory due diligence mechanism to prevent exporting carbon emissions. The Rt. Hon. Luke Pollard suggested further amendments: “we need to ensure that we have measures approaching dynamic alignment with the European Union so that Britain is not seen as a country with lower standards than our European friends.” As the Bill has passed its second reading unopposed, it is expected that these issues will be raised again as the Bill continues its progress through the House of Commons.

Links between other Bills

The Rt. Hon Neil Parish emphasised the links between this and other Bills before parliament: “we must ensure that we join up the Environment Bill with the Agriculture and Fishing Bills…as we drive towards a better environment, we do so across the whole of government.” The Rt. Hon. Dan Jarvis suggested going even further and including reference to the national tree strategy in the Bill.

Transition period

The Environment Bill 2019-2020 will mean considerable change and opportunity for the food and farming sector over the coming decade and helps to address significant environmental challenges as the UK transitions into a post-Brexit World. The change is potentially transformative to the agriculture sector and a great deal of work and focus will be required to support the transition.

The Environment Bill 2019-2020 will now move to the committee stage where it will be scrutinised by a Public Bill Committee on Tuesday 5th May 2020. ADAS will continue to watch the Bill’s progress and bring updates and insights on how the new legislation will impact UK agriculture and food production.

Find out more

If you want to know more about the impact of the Environment Bill on your area of interest and to discuss our wide range of services to support the transition - please contact colin.morgan@adas.co.uk. You can read more about what the Bill means for food and farming sustainability here.

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