Assembly votes to approve commencement of UK Environment Act 2021

By Dr. Jane Clarke, Chair of NIEL’s Nature and Environmental Protection Group

Image via Pixabay

Earlier this week the NI Assembly voted to commence the UK Environment Act, a new piece of legislation to govern the natural environment in Northern Ireland.

Across Northern Ireland 11% (272) of species now at risk of extinction; just one of 49 priority habitats in good condition; and no lakes, rivers or coastal waters are in good condition. Moreover, research from the Natural History Museum and RSPB shows that Northern Ireland now ranked 12th worst in the world for the amount of nature it has left.

The Environment Act 2021 creates a new framework of environmental governance for Northern Ireland covering areas of government oversight, environmental improvement, waste, water, and begins to address our global footprint from imports of forest risk commodities.

At a glance, the Act’s core provisions include:

· Environmental Improvement Plans (EIPs) – such as DAERA’s draft Environment Strategy – that must set out actions that the NI Executive will take to significantly improve the natural environment.

· A new oversight body for public authorities – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – which will monitor the implementation of EIPs, provide advice to government, receive complaints, and launch investigations into serious failures to comply with environmental laws by public authorities.

· Principles policy statement – embeds five core environmental principles – integration, precautionary, preventative, rectification at source, polluter pays – within Ministerial policy-making.

· Reducing our global footprint – prohibits the use of certain commodities associated with illegal deforestation and requires large companies to undertake due diligence and reporting.

What the Act doesn’t do:

· Create legally binding targets to halt nature’s decline.

· Establish an independent environmental protection agency to provide oversight of individuals and businesses.

Whilst there are a number of hugely welcomed provisions, ultimately the Act is a framework piece of legislation and so it must be supported by additional laws for protecting nature.

Dr. Jane Clarke, Chair of NIEL’s Nature and Environmental Protection Group, stated:

“This vote marked a significant and extremely welcome moment for nature protection, creating a new system of environmental governance for Northern Ireland. We are in a nature and climate crisis, with many of our iconic species under threat, and just 1 of 49 priority habitats in good condition.

“Decisions made now will have far reaching impact for current and future generations, and the Environment Act will provide an important framework or accountability for all public authorities. Ultimately, the Environment Act is only the first step in improving the natural environment, with stronger laws for natures recovery also needed. We will be keeping a close watch on the Act’s implementation to ensure it is effective.”

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