The UK government is set to miss legally binding environment targets in 2020, according to an investigation that found it had failed on “pretty much every aspect” of protecting wildlife and the environment.
Despite promises to prioritise green issues, the UK has made little progress on tackling carbon emissions, air and water pollution, waste and overfishing, as well as increasing tree planting and biodiversity.
Boris Johnson promised to “do extraordinary things on the environment”, yet the country’s green credentials are in disrepute, according to the investigation by Greenpeace’s journalism unit Unearthed and the Financial Times.
Next year will be a key moment for the UK to show leadership in tackling climate and nature emergencies when it hosts the United Nations climate change summit COP26.
However, campaigners say progress has been crippled by budget cuts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
“The government is failing to take sufficient action on pretty much every aspect of nature and the environment, despite endless promises to leave it in a better state than it found it. It’s set to miss more targets than an archer shooting blindfolded,” said Sam Chetan-Welsh, political campaigner at Greenpeace UK.
“As rivers and air become more toxic, emissions and waste piles continue to rise, our oceans emptied of fish and countryside becomes devoid of wildlife, the government must be held to account for its failure to protect people’s health and nature.”
The government has already had legal battles over its failure to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution and is now on track to miss 2020 goals to reduce ammonia and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – despite targets being in place since 2012.
It is also on track to miss all of its internationally agreed 2020 biodiversity targets, with reports showing the UK is making “insufficient progress” on 14 of 19 targets. The UK has abandoned plans to conserve half of England’s best wildlife sites by 2020.
If tree planting continues at the same rate as the past two years, the government will fall 2 million trees short of its 2022 target to plant 11 million trees, the investigation found.
The pledge was initially set for 2020 but pushed back two years following a large shortfall.
The government’s own analysis shows it will meet its carbon budgets for 2019 to 2022, but will miss the following two targets which could make reaching net zero by 2050 impossible.
Currently 35 per cent of UK rivers are in good or better condition, which is well below the EU target requiring all water bodies to achieve “good” status by 2015.
Experts say it will be almost impossible to meet European Union requirements to recycle or reuse 50 per cent of household waste by 2020.
Greenpeace is demanding that the long-term targets set up by the Environment Bill are ambitious, watertight and legally binding.
Mr Chetan-Welsh said: “This woeful track record demonstrates the importance of strong legislation and legally binding targets that keep the government on its toes. Yet the government’s proposed Environment Bill, which should do this, is riddled with loopholes that will sadly mean business as usual.
“It is imperative the new environmental watchdog is given true independence and sufficient powers to punish the government’s negligence, and that both long-term and interim targets are legally binding, forcing ministers to clean up their act.”