Environmental Audit Committee shows the “red card” for environmental protection

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has delivered a strong critique of the Coalition Government’s environmental record, with Wednesday’s “environmental scorecard” report concluding that the Government has failed to make satisfactory progress in any of the ten policy areas identified.

Three policy areas were identified as giving the most cause for concern, with biodiversity, air pollution, and flooding and coastal protection all given a “red” rating, representing either a deterioration since 2010, or progress at a pace unlikely to lead to a satisfactory outcome by 2020. Seven other areas – emissions and climate change, forests, soils, resource efficiency and waste, freshwater environment, water availability, and marine environment – were rated “amber”, indicating unsatisfactory progress.

Focusing on England only, the report seeks to establish a clearer picture of the state of the environment, and the progress made in its protection since 2010. It draws on a briefing produced by the National Audit Office in June, written and oral evidence from environmental NGOs and government, and previous EAC reports.

Biodiversity is highlighted as an area of particular concern, with progress towards the Government’s Biodiversity 2020 indicators identified as unsatisfactory, and bird populations – used in the Sustainable Development Indicators as a litmus test for wildlife – deteriorating in three out of four cases. The continued impact of invasive species, and the lack of pollinator-specific measures in the implementation of the 2014 – 2020 Common Agricultural Programme were also viewed as key risks in this area.

Aside from the specific policy themes, an overarching problem raised throughout the report is the insufficient availability and quality of data to allow the state of environmental protection to be assessed effectively, pointing to the importance of accessible ecological evidence in informing decision-making. The report recommends that the Natural Capital Committee established by the government is put on a permanent footing and given a mandate to co-ordinate a programme to improve environmental monitoring data.

The integration of a natural capital approach across all areas of government policy is a key part of the EAC’s recommendations for a new “environmental strategy” – rendering the Natural Capital Initiative’s forthcoming summit even more timely. This strategy would guide the action required to improve the quality of environmental protection in the short to medium term, working across all levels of government, addressing gaps in evidence and assessment and mapping appropriate policy levers. A strengthened Natural Capital Committee, or new independent “office for environmental responsibility”, is recommended to review and audit this strategy, and advise government on appropriate targets and resources.

The timing of the report, released as the main political parties prepare for their manifesto setting conferences ahead of the next general election, sends a strong message affirming the importance of effective environmental protection and outlines an ambitious approach to securing the sustainability of our natural capital.