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Environment Bill: UK government offers five principles for protecting nature – here’s why they won’t work

Abandoned and then resurrected in 2020, the Environment Bill is now entering the final stages of its passage through Parliament. This is the UK government’s post-Brexit policy framework for issues like air quality, pollution, climate change and biodiversity.

Leaving the EU gave the UK Parliament the power to set its own environmental policy, a responsibility it has grappled with since July 2018, when a draft version of the Environment Bill was first announced. Campaigners have decried the government’s decision to reject changes to the bill which would enshrine greater protection for forests and oblige water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges in rivers. But there’s a more fundamental issue with the bill which could make it a failure even on its own terms.

At its heart is a list of five environmental principles by which government ministers would be bound upon the bill’s entry into law.

First there’s the “integration principle”, which compels ministers to embed environmental protection in all of their policies. Then there’s the “prevention principle”, which would require government policy to aim to prevent, reduce or mitigate environmental harm. The “rectification at source principle” states that if damage to the environment cannot be prevented, it should be tackled at its origin, while the “polluter pays principle” requires those responsible for causing damage to the environment be responsible for compensating for it. The “precautionary principle” means that a lack of scientific certainty shouldn’t postpone measures to prevent environmental damage when there is a serious threat.

A river in summer with milky water pollution.
Will the Environment Bill tackle sewage damage to rivers? MikhailBerkut/Shutterstock

The bill has been criticised for not requiring public authorities like local councils to follow its principles, and for giving ministers too much freedom to determine how to interpret them.

Many critics are worried that while the principles point UK environmental policy in the right direction, they don’t force the government to travel there. But for me, the bigger problem is that the principles don’t actually point us in any direction at all.

The five principles in practise

Principles three, four, and five refer to averting environmental “damage”, while the second principle refers to “environmental harm”. These expressions seem to make sense.

But something can only be damaged or harmed in comparison to a baseline of good functioning, which remains undefined. And while the first principle encourages “environmental protection”, protecting something just means preventing harm or damage to it, which brings us back to where we started. So where should this baseline be set?

One might think that it’s easy enough to assess the good functioning of the environment. At a bare minimum, the environment isn’t functioning well if it cannot support life. However, there’s no realistic scenario under which the Earth’s environment becomes hostile to all life.

As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould reminds us, the combined power of the world’s nuclear weapons is dwarfed by the power of the asteroid strike thought to have killed the dinosaurs, and yet that strike not only failed to wipe out all life on Earth but paved the way for the rise of the mammals.

Just as the environmental change created by the asteroid had its winners (the mammals) and losers (the dinosaurs), even changes like causing the extinction of a species can provide benefit to others and so aren’t purely harmful.

Consider the recent furore over Geronimo the alpaca in the UK, which was killed by government officials after twice testing positive for bovine tuberculosis. The decision to kill Geronimo was, obviously, bad for Geronimo. But it was arguably good for other animals who might have contracted tuberculosis from him. So was the government, by approving the killing of Geronimo, averting environmental “damage” and “harm” – or causing it?

Protesters brandish signs in favour of preventing the killing of Geronimo the alpaca.
Environmental policy must navigate tricky ethical questions. EPA-EFE/Vickie Flores

This question has no answer. There is no such thing as an environment being good or bad, better or worse. The Earth’s environment simply serves the interests of some at the expense of others, as do our interventions in it. This makes environmental policy an ethical matter.

Environmental ethics

In the case of Geronimo, for example, do politicians have ethical obligations to domesticated animals? I think they do, which I argue in my forthcoming book Contractarianism, Role Obligations, and Political Morality. And if that’s the case then the government’s killing of Geronimo was unjustified even if it served the greater good.

Part of the ethical duty of democratic institutions is to make judgements around contentious questions like these. The UK Parliament, for instance, must clarify either that it counts as environmental damage if an animal is harmed or killed or that environmental damage concerns only what is good or bad for humans.

By declining to address these questions, Parliament is abdicating its duty to set clear guidelines for environmental protection. Nor does Parliament solve the problem by adopting the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)‘s policy statement on how the five principles should be interpreted, as that statement doesn’t address these questions either.

Consider, for instance, whether new forests should be planted for the sake of removing carbon from the atmosphere, but at the cost of using land that otherwise might support a more biodiverse ecosystem. It is up to people working for the Forestry Commission and Defra to take that difficult decision, but they are unelected and not easily held accountable for their actions.

It’s hard to think of a question on which it’s more important to reach a democratic decision than the question of what we want our environment to look like. As tempting as it may be for MPs to hand that decision over to someone else, the time for delaying these debates is fast running out.

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