UK Law and Green Policy

What is the government doing to protect the environment?

Written by Fatima Freifer
Written by Fatima Freifer


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Government ministers have been repeatedly accused of failing to collaborate in order to avoid net-zero policy gaps and deliver a coordinated approach to addressing interconnected issues such as climate and environmental crises at the same time. A delay in the return of the Environment Bill to Parliament has been a particular disappointment to key green economy figures this year.


Defra, on the other hand, outlined plans this week to add five legally binding principles to the Bill’s legal footing. The foundation would apply to all future policymaking, not just the Bill. The principles intended to get the United Kingdom back on track with the Government’s commitment to “build back greener and leave the environment in a better state for future generations”[1].


Integration (ensuring that policies are interconnected to maximize opportunities); prevention (aiming to stop or reduce harm to the environment rather than remediation after the event); rectification at source (ensuring that, when damage does occur, it is not offset as a first option); polluter pays, and precaution are some of the principles. This final principle is intended to ensure that potential threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage are addressed as a priority and that policymakers do not cite uncertainty as a reason for inaction.


The Second Round of the Green Recovery Challenge Fund


Defra launched a £40 million Green Recovery Challenge Fund last year as an alternative to the National Nature Service, which had widespread support in the green economy but was ultimately deemed too costly by the Treasury. The competition allows environmental charities and local governments to compete for funding to complete nature conservation, restoration and education projects.


Following the initial Challenge Fund pot being more than six times oversubscribed, Defra and the Treasury announced plans to launch a second pot totalling £40 million.


“In the first round, we awarded grants across a broad variety of environmental projects, ranging from planting trees and restoring peatlands to connecting people with green spaces, forests and protected landscapes,” Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said. “I encourage more organisations to apply so we can continue to make a real difference”[2].


The Climate Change Act 2008


The Climate Change Act was passed by an overwhelming majority of political parties in the United Kingdom in November 2008 [3]. It establishes emission reduction targets that the UK must legally meet. It is the first legally binding global climate change mitigation target set by a country.


Net Zero-Target


The Act committed the United Kingdom to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to the 1990’s levels. However, in 2019, the UK became the first major economy to commit to a ‘net-zero’ target, making this target even more ambitious. The new target calls for the UK to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.


Carbon Budgets


The Act also includes a carbon budgeting system to assist the UK in meeting its targets through a series of five-year carbon budgets.


According to the Committee on Climate Change (see below), the first and second carbon budgets were met, and the UK is on track to meet the third (2018–22), but not the fourth (2023–27) or fifth (2028–32) budgets.


Who is in charge of climate change policies?


Addressing the causes of climate change and adapting to its consequences affects all aspects of the economy. The government has established a Cabinet Committee on Climate Change, which will be chaired by the Prime Minister. Subcommittees are working to ensure that climate change decisions are made across the government. It is the responsibility of all government departments to consider climate change when making policy decisions. The two primary UK government departments in

 charge of climate change are:


Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – BEIS is in charge of ensuring secure energy and promoting climate change action in the UK and globally.

Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) – Defra is in charge of developing the National Adaptation Programme to address the risks outlined in the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment [4].
The Treasury announced in 2019 that it will conduct the first-ever Net Zero Review, which will assess how the UK can maximize economic growth opportunities from its transition to a green economy. The devolved administrations’ governments and assemblies (Scotland, Wales, and Northern jurisdiction pertained to assisting in the implementation of UK-wide policies by the Climate Change Act, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate climate change policies. For example, the Climate Change (Scotland) Act of 2009 commits Scotland to a 2045 “Net Zero” emissions target. This includes a 56% reduction by 2020, a 75% reduction by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2040 compared to the baseline. In addition, a Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme is required.


Brexit and Its Impact on Environmental Policy


Over the last four decades, Britain’s EU membership has played a critical role in enhancing the UK’s reputation in environmental policy.


There were several signs in 2019 that the environment had become a major concern for voters and politicians. Climate strikes in September of that year, as well as the emergence of the Extinction Rebellion movement, and a slew of droughts, floods and wildfires, all cast an intense political spotlight on the environment. There was a ‘Green Surge’ in the May 2019 European elections, with the Green Party increasing their share of the vote by 4.2%, bringing them to 12.1% overall, beating the Conservatives into fifth place and gaining five additional seats, bringing their total number of MEPs to an all-time high of seven.


The environment was the top third issue for approximately 25% of UK voters in the December general election, and it was prominently featured in all major party manifestos.


The Covid-19 pandemic seemed to indicate that this concern for the environment would continue, if not become amplified. During the lockdown, memes emerged about how ‘nature was healing itself’ as travel ceased and economies slowed. Concerns about the links between air quality and health were heightened by the possibility of a link between poor air quality and Covid-19 outcomes [5].

However, as the lockdown has loosened, the government’s priority has shifted back to getting the economy moving, and new (and, in some cases, old) environmental challenges have emerged. The pandemic has resulted in an increase in the prevalence of single-use plastics and litter, particularly medical waste like face masks and gloves.


The government’s recommendation that people avoid taking public transportation is likely to result in more car trips and a rebound in carbon dioxide emissions. According to Department of Transportation data, while car travel has nearly returned to pre-lockdown levels, public transportation use is significantly lower. While cycling or walking to work is an option in some (mostly urban) areas, a significant number of commuters live too far away from their workplaces for these low-carbon alternatives to be viable. 




Ultimately, even the most ambitious environmental laws risk being rendered ineffective in the absence of independent and authoritative enforcement. They also reveal a deeply troubling shift toward limiting the scope for government accountability, which is consistent with recent government actions and rhetoric in other contexts. This includes, for example, the ongoing study of judicial review reform options, which reveals a desire to narrow the scope of review of government and public authority actions.


[1] Six changes to UK green policy that you need to know about this week, March 2021,

[2] £40m second round of the Green Recovery Challenge Fund opens for applications, March 2021,

[3] What is the 2008 Climate Change Act?, April 2020,

[4] UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report, 2017, Climate Change Committee,

[5] Links between air pollution and COVID-19 in England, MRC Toxicology Unit, University of Cambridge, UK, Oct 2020,

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