Environment Bill and the Health of our Waters

Thank you for contacting me about the Environment Bill and the health of our waters.

It is welcome that the Environment Bill will ensure the environment is at the heart of all policy making, with long-term legally binding targets on biodiversity, water, and resource and waste efficiency being established. I am pleased that the Bill will also legislate for the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection, which must act objectively and impartially, and will hold the Government account on these targets.

The ocean is currently facing unprecedented challenges, including climate change and over-fishing. It is more important than ever to take action to ensure our seas are healthy, abundant, productive and resilient.

The UK is leading the way on ocean protection and we are on course to protecting over half of our waters. The UK now has 357 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) of different types, spanning 220,000 square km, and no activities deemed damaging to designated features will be allowed to take place in these areas. An external review has also been launched into whether and how Highly Protected Marine Areas, the strongest form of marine protection, could be introduced in English seas, potentially expanding and strengthening the UK’s Blue Belt to create richer habitats for marine life.

The UK’s Blue Belt Programme is on track to protect over 4 million square kilometres of ocean around the Overseas Territories before the end of the year. The Government is working closely with Commonwealth partners through the Commonwealth Marine Economies Programme to support sustainable development of their marine economies, and the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance to reduce marine plastic pollution. Furthermore, the UK will establish a £500m Blue Planet Fund to help eligible countries protect their marine resources from climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and habitat loss.

The UK is working hard to deliver an international agreement that at least 30 per cent of the world’s ocean will be protected within MPAs by 2030.  As a key part of delivering that target, the UK is committed to concluding negotiations on a new legally binding UN agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Ministers are pressing for negotiations to conclude this year. 

Defra is playing a key role in the negotiation team and will be sending four officials from marine policy, in addition to officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to attend the fourth intergovernmental conference based on positions agreed by Ministers.

Since water privatisation, around £25 billion has been invested to reduce pollution from sewage, covering improvements in sewage treatment and overflows. In England, between 2015 and 2020, water companies are investing over £3 billion to improve their sewerage infrastructure. It is also encouraging to see tough enforcement action when things go wrong, as with the unprecedented fine of almost £20 million levied against Thames Water in March 2017 in response to six cases of avoidable sewage pollution.

The majority of aquatic litter originates from land-based sources, so I believe the best approach to stemming the flow of plastic is by taking action on land. The UK’s world-leading ban on microbeads will help stop potentially billions of particles from entering the aquatic environment every year, and over 15.6 billion fewer bags have been issued since the introduction of the plastic bag charge in 2015. The legislation to ban the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has also now been laid in Parliament, marking an important step in the Government’s fight against single-use plastics.

Climate change is one of the largest threats facing the planet. The best thing we can do to reduce the impact of climate change on the environment, including the ocean, is to accelerate ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The UK is a committed, ambitious and effective leader in tackling climate change being the first country to declare a climate emergency, enshrining in law a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and showing leadership in protecting the ocean to help build its resilience to climate change.