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Toxic air that harms health, and water pollution from sewage and farming must be tackled as urgent priorities, the new environmental watchdog has warned.
Overfishing and damage to sea floors from trawling, loss of natural habitats, and degraded soils must also be urgently dealt with by the Government, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) urges in its first report.
OEP chairwoman Dame Glenys Stacey said that, despite ambition by the Government, the environment is in a “precarious” state and suffering worrying and persistent declines in air and water quality, species and habitats.
The report calls for the Government to make a comprehensive “stocktake” of the state of the natural world, set out ambitious legal targets and coherent action, and to make the environment a priority across all departments.
Addressing the crisis in England’s air, water, landscapes and seas should have the same level of cross-government support and urgency as climate efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, it urges.
The OEP is also calling on the Government to reverse the decline in funding for monitoring the state of the environment over the last decade – but does not call for more resources overall to tackling the environmental crisis.
The watchdog was set up as part of the post-Brexit regime for managing England’s environment, with a role for monitoring progress on reversing harm to the natural world and acting as a regulator on green laws.
Its first monitoring report on the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, announced in 2018, warns that, while the plans for the natural world are ambitious, progress on delivering them has been too slow.
It warns of “tipping points” where slow, persistent declines in nature become catastrophic – such as setting fishing limits above scientific advice, which can lead to fish stock crashes, and the continued damage to the seabed, which destroys the marine ecosystem.
Failing to prioritise these issues and address them before the tipping points are reached will make it much harder to reverse the declines, Dame Glenys said.
And she said: “The 25 Year Environment Plan was an ambitious attempt to confront the challenges facing the environment, yet we continue to see worrying and persistent trends of environmental decline.
“Our rivers are in a poor state, bird and other species numbers are in serious decline, poor air quality threatens the health of many, and our seas and sea floor are not managed sustainably.”
Turning the situation around will not be easy, she acknowledged, but urged the Government to set a clear and ambitious vision for the environment which is prioritised across all departments.
“All of us have an inarguable dependency on the environment, and its precarious state should be a matter of concern for all of Government and a national priority,” she warned.
A decade ago the Conservative Government said it wanted to leave the natural world in England in a better state for future generations than it found it, and in 2018 produced the 25 Year Environment Plan with dozens of measures across 10 areas from clean air and water to waste, wildlife and landscapes.
Last year it also passed the Environment Act, which will allow for setting new targets in areas including curbing air pollution, and is set to produce a new Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) under the Act next year.
The OEP report highlights a series of areas which it thinks the Government should prioritise and take immediate action on, including cutting air pollutants that cause tens of thousands of early deaths a year.
Tackling water pollution in rivers, lakes and streams from treated sewage and agricultural run-off from livestock and arable farms should also be a priority.
England’s seas need urgent action to halt overfishing, which affects around a third of stocks in UK waters, and to prevent the damage caused by fishing gear trawled over the seabed which removes the plant and animal life living there.
On land, loss of habitat caused by intensification of agriculture and urbanisation must be tackled, as well as erosion and degraded soils, which causes flooding, releases carbon and puts costs on farming.
The report calls on the Government to understand the drivers of environmental decline, create a vision to tackle the crisis, set ambitious targets, implement coherent strategy and policy, ensure good governance and monitoring, assessment and reporting on progress.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We welcome this report, which acknowledges that our Environment Act gives us new tools to make a real difference to our environment, putting it at the heart of government and transitioning us to a sustainable future with nature on the road to recovery during this decade.
“Six months on from the Act gaining royal assent, we are currently consulting on legally binding environmental targets which include a world-leading target to halt species decline by 2030.
“We have launched a consultation to deliver the largest programme in history to tackle storm sewage discharges and we have taken action to transform the way that we deal with waste.”