Explainer: Setting long-term targets under the Environment Bill

Management & Regulation, Natural Environment, Processed Water, Waste & Resources, Water Resources

Explainer: Setting long-term targets under the Environment Bill 

The Environment Bill is back in the news again, after George Eustice, Environment Secretary, unveiled a policy document which commits Defra to explore targets in four key areas and to set at least one long term target in each area.

The Environment Bill is genuinely a once in a generation opportunity to protect our environment and set a course for nature recovery in the UK. In the face of a climate and ecological emergency and a world recovering from the impact of Covid19, it’s more important than ever that we have a robust framework for improving our natural environment. Setting legally binding targets will be an important mechanism to deliver these vital environmental improvements. The newly published policy document commits the government to developing legally binding targets for biodiversity, air quality, water and waste, which are “strong and meaningful”.

Scope of the targets

Whilst the government has stated that they have not committed to the specific targets to be set or the metrics which will be used, the policy document contains an overview of objectives for targets which it considers could help to meet the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan. These are as follows:


-reduce water demand

-reduce pollution from agriculture

-reduce pollution from wastewater.


-improve quality of habitat on land, freshwater and marine habitats through the condition of protected sites

-improve the overall status of species populations on land and freshwater

-restore and create wildlife-rich habitat outside protected sites.

Improving soil health and improving woodland cover have also been proposed as potential objectives for targets, which we would fully support being included.


-increase resource productivity

-reducing the volume of residual waste generated

Air quality

-reducing the annual mean level of PM2.5

-reducing population exposure to PM2.5


Targets will be set through engagement with key stakeholders, sector experts and academics, as well as public consultation, through a process which the government claims will be “robust, evidence-led and seeks independent advice”. Parliamentary Select Committees, for example the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, are also expected to scrutinise proposed targets. The Government will prepare an Impact Assessment which considers the environmental and socio-economic considerations for each proposed target.

Once the targets have been scrutinised, the government will publish a response and decide on the targets. The new Office for Environmental Protection will be obliged to report annually on progress made against the targets in improving the natural environment.


According to Defra’s timetable, targets must be brought forward by Statutory Instrument by 31st October 2022 for approval by Parliament. There will be interim targets for progress-checking as well as longer term targets. Long term targets must be for a minimum of 15 years, and be time-bound, clearly defined and able to be objectively measured.

Setting long term targets for environmental improvement through the Environment Bill is an important mechanism for delivering benefits to nature, but green recovery in a post-Covid19 world will require significant investment, which we have yet to see a commitment to by No10 and the Treasury in the recovery packages announced to date. The government has pledged to “build back greener”, but prioritisation of green investment to meet their long-term targets and deliver the government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state is essential to its success.

By Heather Gardner, Senior Policy Adviser - CIWEM

contact Heather at Heather.gardner@ciwem.org

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