Environmental protection: small changes, big impact

Published: 30 June 2021

Last update: 30 June 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Katie Ramsey, Public Policy Officer Katie Ramsey Public Policy Officer
Grasses and Willowherb at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria

The challenge ahead of us to reverse the effects of climate change and to tackle the current decline of biodiversity is substantial. We know that nature is under greater pressure than ever before, and that climate change is only going to bring more challenges for the places that the National Trust looks after on behalf of the nation.

The Trust’s roots are in conserving special places for people and nature and we now look after nearly 250,000 hectares of countryside. More than one in 10 of our best-loved plants and animals are threatened with extinction from the UK, and most of our most precious habitats are degraded. We want future generations to be able to access green space wherever they live and enjoy beautiful landscapes full of wildlife. But for that to be the case, significant change is needed and needed soon.

We’ve welcomed the Government’s ambition to be world leading, and the commitments they’ve made which, if kept, could bring about this much needed change. If we can achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, ensure that 30 per cent of land is restored and protected for nature, and reverse biodiversity decline by 2030, then we really will be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. But we need hit the ground running with these targets, taking meaningful action now.

Butterfly at Lundy Island, Devon
Butterfly at Lundy Island, Devon
Butterfly at Lundy Island, Devon

While the challenge is large, the actions we take do not always need to be equally huge. The 5p plastic bag charge, introduced in 2015, reduced sales of single-use plastic bags in supermarkets by 90 per cent. While this piece of legislation is not perfect (we still need to make changes to ensure that single-used plastic bags are not replaced by longer-life alternatives that are just as quickly discarded), the scale of improvement that a very small change – just 5p – can enact is clear. Small changes can make a big difference.

Yet, the reverse is also true; small mistakes or decisions can have a significant negative impact on the environment. When we left the EU, the Government pledged that there would be no regression from our existing standards of environmental protection. Currently, however, in the Government’s Environment Bill, there are several areas where the new legislation is weaker than the EU legislation. These are often technical, seemingly minor changes which don’t necessarily, individually have a major impact. But these small differences add up and could cause us to regress on environmental protection, at exactly the time we need to be pressing forward.

This is particularly clear when we look at the Government’s recent policy statement on ‘Environmental Principles’. These principles, which previously stood in EU law, aim to integrate environmentally-conscious decision-making into the heart of policy-making. The UK principles, in several small but important areas, however, fall short.  

The Bill provides numerous exemptions to the policy– including very broadly for policy relating to funding – and requires that the statement should only be applied by Government ministers, rather than to all decisions taken across the public sector. In the policy document, moreover, references to ‘proportionality’ vastly outnumber any mention of ‘improve’ or ‘enhance’, encouraging policy-makers to prioritise other outcomes over environmental protection. These small decisions – an additional mention of proportionality here, another exemption there – add up, and when multiplied across every policy decision taken in government over the coming years, represent significant opportunities lost to protect our environment and integrate nature’s recovery into our long-term social and economic ambitions.

The current voicing of individual principles similarly includes small changes that could be causes of concern in the long term. The prevention principle, for example, is normally used to ensure that environmental harm is prevented as far as possible from the outset, but by laying out the principle as asking policy-makers to ‘prevent, reduce or mitigate environmental harm’, the policy statement implies that it is equally acceptable to ‘reduce’ harm rather than ‘prevent’ it. This might seem minor, but if a policy is implemented that, for example, affects every new house built in Britain, but which only reduces, rather than prevents environmental harm, this avoidable damage will be multiplied a million times.

We believe that the Government needs to return to its policy statement with a fine-tooth comb and ensure that their ambitious targets are reflected in the minutia of this policy. You can see our response to the Government’s consultation on Environmental principles below, and the more detailed Greener UK response that we support here.

The Government also recently announced that it will introduce a new power into the Environment Bill, to allow the Secretary of State for the Environment to alter the Habitats Regulations, which underpin our current system of protections for important habitats and species. It’s possible that positive changes could be made to these vital protections but we are wary about such an integral element of our environmental protection system being put on the line and, as we have seen above, small changes, can have big unintended consequences.

We call on the Government to tread carefully and consult widely and meaningfully with stakeholders, to ensure all changes have a positive effect for nature and climate.

This year is one in which globally significant decisions about our environment are being made – with the UK playing a leadership role in heading up COP26, on climate change, and ahead of COP15, on biodiversity. We believe the Government needs to move forward with both ambition and care, to ensure that every change implemented serves to protect and bring back nature, restoring it to health for now and the future

Grasses and willowherb at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria

Our response to the Government’s environmental principles consultation 

See how we responded to the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs consultation on environmental principles.