Hopes for the forthcoming Environment Bill
Aldersgate Group organised a report launch event on Thursday, 29th November 2018 entitled ‘What does business want from the Environment Bill?’ I was delighted to present at the launch, where representatives from a number of environmental disciplines came together, with Defra and other government departments to discuss what industry needs from the forthcoming Environment Bill.
I decided to share a few reflections on the report and the new Bill from a resources and waste sector perspective.
The Blueprint for the Environment Act
Although time is running out for government to get the draft Bill published before the turn of the year, agreeing amongst ourselves some of the critical components of the Bill, its scope and powers is important if we are to encourage the government to get this once in a lifetime opportunity right. The event was a welcome opportunity to launch a Broadway Initiative Report ‘Blueprint for an Environment Act’, which was the culmination of many months work of a host of experts representing EIC, ESA, Aldersgate Group, Water UK, Tech UK, NFU, IEMA to name a few.
The Bill’s scope and ambition
SUEZ recycling and recovery UK fully supports a far reaching Environment Bill, one that any of us working in the resource sector could be proud of. As such, we believe the new Bill must go beyond what the European Commission (through existing Framework Directives and the Circular Economy Package) has signed up to and set clear environmental principles and outcomes that must be enshrined in British law that hold us all accountable for the next 25 years and beyond.
There is little doubt that we are living through the most interesting times. With Britain in the throes of exiting the European Union and with the new portfolio of policies and associated regulatory framework coming to the fore in support of a new age of environmentalism, green growth and sustainability, the new Environment Bill must reflect the changing public, media and business interest in the environment, and ensure that policy commitments from the last 12 months are fully delivered upon!
Many of us have been sceptical about the ultimate delivery of the good words and often step change policy initiatives proposed in recent months, more of which will come in the soon to be launched Resources and Waste Plan, whether it be removing all unnecessary plastic waste, mandating food waste collections or driving an ambitious increase in resource productivity.
So the new Environment Act must make government, and all of its agents of change, accountable for their actions against these targets, policies and priorities. This will give SUEZ the confidence that we can take long term investment decisions about the changing markets we call waste and resources to help develop and deliver the infrastructure needed to make wastes a feedstock for growth industrial sectors, from transport and chemicals, to agriculture and manufacturing.
As such, we fully welcome the establishment of a new body to take enforcement action when there may be a breach of environmental law, including the use of legal proceedings if necessary. This body must hold government to account, ensuring that its positive words and commitments are delivered in all aspects of environmental protection and development.
Progress through regulation
It should be noted that the waste sector has been revolutionised in the last 50 years through the advent of legislation and associated effective regulations. From COPA in 1974 to the EPA in 1990, good policy and legislation has been underpinned by regulation, ensuring that those that cut corners are caught and appropriately fined. This has allowed large companies working in all aspects of the environment to invest, develop, and explore new solutions and opportunities knowing that compliance with the rules and regulations will be rewarded.
This spirit of control and innovation has continued through more recent years, with the landfill tax showcasing just how effective a financial policy with effective regulation and enforcement can be in driving waste away from landfill to alternative treatment methods. We have moved from 90% landfill only 20 years ago, to only 5% landfill today, with 45% of materials being recycled and 45% being used as a fuel for energy production. This rapid transition of our sector would not have been possible without effective regulation and enforcement.
In the last decade SUEZ has invested £2billion in new UK based resource recovery infrastructure, and the next decade will bring a similar level of further investment, as we continue to expand energy production, heat generation and chemicals capture for new industrial development. We will also expand our recycling, harvesting and refining capabilities to help ensure that target materials are ‘close-looped’ back into manufacturing as part of the revolution in extended producer responsibility that we all hope will be in place by 2020.
But without a strong stick, a well-resourced regulator and an over-arching body that will ensure the UK’s policy ideals are upheld, much of our former investment and our planned investment may have been considered too big a risk. Our current Paris based owners see the UK market as a buoyant one with plenty of opportunity, and this cannot be undermined by taking the easy option with enshrining environmental principles in law and by not giving the watchdog body the appropriate powers.
SUEZ firmly believes that well-designed and properly enforced, environmental regulations can deliver positive economic outcomes in the form of increased business investment in innovation and skills, better quality products and infrastructure, greater business competitiveness and job creation – just as we have in recent decades both in the UK but also globally. We are one of the 20 leading UK based companies that signed a letter in the Telegraph calling for long-term goals to be enshrined in the Environment Bill.
But one current concern that SUEZ has is that existing government policies remain misaligned and in some places in competition with one another. Currently, DfT wants (and is incentivising) residual wastes to fuel both urban and aviation sectors, whilst DEFRA is looking to significantly reduce low grade plastic wastes. Add to this BEIS and its desire (again incentivised) for increased heat-offtake and future growth of both agriculture and chemical manufacturing sectors and there is just too much demand for the non-recycled materials coming from the UK’s households and businesses.
Oversight is critical for ensuring that policies align and that the real priorities of global warming, resource productivity and economic development are deliverable and delivered in a timely fashion.
Reflecting on the process
SUEZ recycling and recovery UK is proud to have been involved with the Broadway Initiative since its inception, and on a personal level I have enjoyed the challenge of working with other environmental disciplines to agree the key principles, scope of work, and powers of the new Environment Bill.
The report produced is one that reflects our perspective and that of a wide-ranging group of experts and practitioners from a diverse environmental background. The report outlines just what is needed in the Environment Bill from shared objectives, long term perspectives, and principles that should underpin future policy development, to a better reflection of spatial interdependencies, the need for UK mutual benefits, the clarity needed on roles and responsibilities, and the value of an independent oversight body with ‘teeth’. We have found the process used enlightening and hope that the outputs of the work become the benchmark for UK Government in the months ahead as their thinking on this critical new piece of post Brexit legislation is refined.
Please take a look at the report, and be prepared to comment on the new Bill when it’s issued. There is always an opportunity to have your voice heard. The UK environment sector will continue to live through interesting times, but a strong Environment Bill, with clear enshrined principles and strong enforcement powers will help ensure government stays on course for delivering both green growth, environmental protection and will provide businesses with the confidence to invest in new infrastructure, solutions and services in support of this government agenda.
Dr Adam Read is Director of External Affairs at SUEZ