Statement on the Government’s failure to meet Environment Act targets deadline

7th November 2022

The Government has missed its own deadline to set the Environment Act targets for air quality, water health, nature and waste management.

This is bad news but also an opportunity to make improvements to the targets.

Legally-binding targets are the foundation for the Environment Act, which passed into law in 2021, and are designed to halt the decline in wildlife by 2030 and increase species populations by 2042. The Environment Act included a legal deadline of 31 October 2022, for the nature targets to be published. With this date now having passed, Dame Glenys Stacey, Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection has met with Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to discuss the delay.

Back in the summer, along with many other wildlife conservation charities, we gave our feedback on the targets, in the Government’s public consultation. We expressed concerns that the targets were not ambitious enough, but welcomed some of the proposed steps to improve the state of our freshwaters, including:

  • The recognition of the full variety of freshwater habitats – including ponds, lakes, rivers and streams – as environments that are ‘wildlife-rich’ and have particular value for biodiversity.
  • A target of creating more than 500,000 hectares of new wildlife-rich habitats – including freshwaters like new ponds and wetlands – outside existing protected area by 2042.

However, the targets for the freshwater still had major shortcomings. Instead of focusing on the biological condition of our freshwater habitats – how much life they support – the Government proposed to focus on how much pollution is getting into freshwater. But simply measuring pollution doesn’t tell you whether you succeeding in protecting freshwaters because we’ve seen time and again that pollution reductions don’t lead to more life in the water. And you can only tell if it’s making a difference by actually checking the plants and animals you are trying to protect.

We are very concerned that the Environment Act targets deadline has been missed because the delay suggests that the Government is not taking the biodiversity crisis seriously enough. Freshwater biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate and we need legally-binding targets in place now to protect the best and reverse the decline. We also remain deeply concerned that the targets aren’t yet right for freshwater.

But there is a potential benefit in the delay: it means there is still time to introduce targets for improving the dire biological condition of freshwater. Biological targets are crucial if we’re serious about stopping the decline of life in freshwater.

At Freshwater Habitats Trust we will, of course, continue to protect our remaining high quality freshwaters and create new habitats for freshwater wildlife – to stop and reverse the decline of life in freshwater. As the UK’s leading charity for all freshwaters, we’re taking a new approach to freshwater conservation by building a national network of wilder, cleaner, connected habitats. While the Freshwater Network doesn’t depend on the Environment Act targets, these targets are important in setting out the Government’s commitment to nature. It will be vital to have that commitment from the top as we work with our partners to make the Freshwater Network a reality over the coming years

Professor Jeremy Biggs, CEO, Freshwater Habitats Trust