Businesses can shape UK environmental targets

Out-Law Analysis | 16 Sep 2020 | 12:51 pm | 4 min. read

Promoters of energy projects have an opportunity to work proactively with the UK government as it looks to set environmental targets with potentially far-reaching effects.

The Environment Bill currently before the UK parliament will, when enacted, require the government to produce further regulations that set at least one legally binding environmental target in four priority areas: air quality, biodiversity, water, and resource efficiency and waste reduction, as well as a target for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

This process is a major new step and goes beyond climate change mitigation. The effects will reach into many areas of existing and proposed energy assets. However, promoters of energy projects will want to ensure that any targets are balanced with the desire to stimulate and kick-start the economy in light of the impact of Covid-19. 

Environmental targets policy

The latest step towards the setting of the new goals was the publication by the government of its environmental targets policy paper in August 2020. The paper provides an overview of how environmental targets will be developed across the priority policy areas and identifies broad objectives for those targets. It identifies how the government will develop its evidence base and set targets which "drive environmental outcomes that benefit future generations and respect nature’s intrinsic value, independent of human use".

McDonald Nick

Nick McDonald

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Developers will also want to impress upon the government the need for certainty for project planning and investment and will therefore want a clear policy position to be outlined by the government in cases where there is potential tension between new environmental targets and economic growth and, in such cases, which takes precedence

The paper is essentially a roadmap to target setting, with the targets themselves to be laid before parliament by 31 October 2022.

The roadmap and long lead in time to target setting provides an opportunity for developers to participate in the process, as the targets will undoubtedly be crucial to the nature, scale, location and delivery of future energy projects. Developers will also want to impress upon the government the need for certainty for project planning and investment and will therefore want a clear policy position to be outlined by the government in cases where there is potential tension between new environmental targets and economic growth and, in such cases, which takes precedence.

Given the timetable for the targets to be brought into force, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before fully formed targets will emerge and are implemented. That means there is a real opportunity to influence the direction of travel. There are particular areas that the energy industry will have an interesting in shaping.

Air quality

The objectives for targets under consideration are:

  • reducing the annual mean level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in ambient air; and
  • in the long-term, reducing population exposure to PM2.5

This is an unsurprising goal given that short-term exposure to elevated levels of PM2.5 is known to have a number of human health impacts. In practice the goal of reducing the population –rather than local – exposure to PM2.5 could mean that, no matter where projects are located geographically, developers may find they face a higher bar in respect of air quality requirements. This could have significant ramifications for energy and industrial installations, with possible requirements to have equipment installed to continuously monitor PM2.5 emissions and a contingency plan in place should thresholds be exceeded.

These issues will emerge as important in environmental impact assessment, or its successor as mooted recently by the government, and then in environmental permitting for relevant installations.

Waste reduction

The objectives for targets under consideration are:

  • increase resource productivity; and
  • reduce the volume of ‘residual’ waste generated

The policy paper proposes that residual waste is reduced and that a target in this area is explored. It is likely that targets imposed in this area would relate to waste prevention and increased recycling measures. Given that this type of waste is usually sent for incineration at an energy recovery plant or to landfill, with some sent overseas as refuse derived fuel, there may be consequential impacts in respect of feedstock for certain technologies such as an energy from waste plant.

Biodiversity

The objectives for targets under consideration are:

  • improve the quality of habitat on land, including freshwater and coastal sites, expressed through the condition of protected sites (SSSIs);
  • improve the quality of the marine habitat, expressed through the condition of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs);
  • improve the overall status of species populations on land and in freshwaters; and
  • restore and create wildlife-rich habitat outside protected sites through appropriate management

Businesses exploring offshore wind projects will have a particular interest in the proposed objectives for targets in respect of MPAs. This is because MPAs now cover 40% of English waters. A legally binding target for MPAs could complement ongoing work for the protection of these areas and ensuring 'favourable' condition status. This would provide focus for the ambitions with clear aims and a deadline. There is, however, a need to balance increased protection for habitats with the long term and wide-ranging benefits of renewable energy. MPAs and offshore wind farms can and do successfully co-exist but engagement will be vital to ensure that any targets do not inadvertently jeopardise the build rate for offshore wind farms required to achieve net zero by 2050.

The objectives relating to land-based biodiversity could easily be linked to biodiversity net gain – a concept which is to be introduced into law for the first time via the Environment Bill – for most schemes consented via planning permission. As many developers will not be able to achieve a net gain within a development site, the legislative proposals will create a market for land owners and others to facilitate habitat and species improvements – this should provide a clear path to securing and funding some of the aims of the biodiversity-related objectives.

The importance of engaging

It is clear that legally binding environment targets have the ability to impact and shape the direction of energy projects in the coming years. Developers should take the upcoming opportunities to engage with and steer the target setting process. The Environment Bill was being considered by a Public Bill Committee, and the Committee is now scheduled to report by Tuesday 29 September 2020.

Co-written by Amy Stirling and Matthew Carpenter of Pinsent Masons.