Analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO) states that the government will need to “shift momentum” to achieve its environmental ambitions

Greenhouse gas emissions

Lockdown measures led to a record decrease in UK emissions in 2020 of 13% from the previous year (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Monkeyboy0076)

The UK government doesn’t have the “right framework” in place to achieve its environmental goals, according to a report.

The analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO), an independent UK parliamentary body, states that the government will need to “shift momentum” to achieve its ambition of “improving the natural environment in England within a generation”.

The report points to how in 2011, the government set an ambition for this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a “better state that it inherited”.

In 2018, it published a 25-year environmental plan (the Environment Plan) to achieve this ambition, and position the UK as a global environmental leader, by setting 10 overarching goals covering issues such as clean air, clean and plentiful water and thriving plants and wildlife.

But Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said it is now nine years since the government set this ambition and it “still does not have the right framework to achieve it”.

He added: “Some progress has been made on elements of the Environment Plan but significant action is needed across national and local government, working with business and the public, if the environmental goals are to be met.”


UK government environmental goals have “varying and unclear timescales”

The NAO’s report notes that clear objectives and plans are important for “persuading people within and outside government to take environmental goals seriously”.

It added that while the Environment Plan marked a “step forward” in setting direction for environmental policy, its headline ambitions are a mixture of aspirations, legally-binding targets and policy commitments, with “varying and unclear timescales”.

In January, the government presented a wide-ranging Environment Bill (the Bill) to parliament, which would help clarify ambitions for five of government’s environmental goals.

It included requirements for the government to set at least one new long-term target for air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bill’s progress through parliament was halted between March and November.

EU Methane Strategy IOGP
The NAO said the government’s Environment Plan marked a “step forward” in setting direction for environmental policy (Credit: (Flickr/Nick Humphries)

The NAO said the government has not yet set a course for developing a comprehensive set of objectives and delivery plans to achieve its environmental goals.

While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has developed its plans to improve air quality and reduce waste, the analysis points out that it has not set a timetable for working out whether it is doing enough to meet government’s environmental goals as a whole, or how much it might cost to meet these ambitions.

The NAO believes this “creates a risk that funding decisions are made in a piecemeal way”.

It added that government should ensure that when it introduces its new environmental targets, they are part of a “coherent set of objectives”, with measurable outcomes for the medium-term (2030) and long-term (2040).

The report also calls on Britain’s policymakers to create a “clear plan”, which outlines the estimated cost to meet these objectives and how this could be paid for.

The NAO said Defra knows it will need to help people and businesses to change their behaviour if it is to meet its aims but added that is only just beginning work to look at how it will do this in a “co-ordinated and evidence-based way”.

The analysis notes that it should prioritise its behaviour change work to “capitalise on positive changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic” – such as walking and cycling – and ensure this “aligns with related behaviour change work being carried out in other parts of government”.


Skills and resource gaps could “set back” government’s progress towards its environmental goals

The NAO believes the skills and resource gaps could “set back” the government’s progress towards its environmental goals.

It added that local authorities play a “critical role” in improving air quality and the natural environment but notes that the pandemic is “putting pressure on resources and access to the right expertise”.

The report claims that “arms-length bodies” have also raised concerns around funding and skills shortages. During the pandemic, Defra had to divert people from across the department to help with the emergency response.

The NAO said Defra should work with the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury to develop a strategy to ensure the “right skills and resources are available”.

It added that this should include an analysis of how to ensure delivery partners have the funds to meet their responsibilities and the factors leading to a high turnover of senior departmental staff.

The analysis highlights Defra’s approach to monitoring and reporting progress against its environmental goals is “developing” but claims it still has some “serious gaps”.

While it has increased the scope of its environmental reporting, the government department does not expect to have complete data to measure overall performance against its environmental ambitions until 2024 at the earliest.

The NAO believes Defra should start to “report against a comprehensive set of milestones” for the Environment Plan, and track how it has responded to recommendations from the new Office for Environmental Protection, which will take over scrutiny of the Environment Plan in 2021.

It added that Defra, working with the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, should also monitor annual cross-government spending on “key environmental initiatives”, alongside the “benefits they achieve”.