November 12, 2019

UK likely to miss 2020 environmental goals

UK likely to miss 2020 environmental goals

Targets to reduce air and water pollution, improve biodiversity, and increase the proportion of recycled waste look set to be missed, according to research undertaken by the FT and Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s environmental journalism project.

The FT and Unearthed conducted a joint analysis of government data which reveals that the UK government is failing in its progress towards a number of environmental targets. Budget cuts following the 2008 financial crisis have been proposed as a possible cause. 

In line with UN guidelines, to improve air quality and public health by January 2020 Britain must reduce ammonia levels by 8%, compared to 2005 levels, and the concentration of particulate matter (PM2.5) by 30%. However, ammonia emissions have fallen less than 1% since 2005, whilst PM2.5 levels have fallen just 15%. Both ammonia and PM2.5 can contribute to serious respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

“[A]ir pollution may also affect aspects of human life beyond health, such as learning outcomes,” writes Sefi Roth in his IZA World of Labor article. He notes: “This is of paramount importance, as a sound educational background is essential to many occupations.”

Experts also believe it is almost impossible for the UK to meet the EU’s target to recycle, reuse, or compost half of household waste by the start of 2020. While the nation is also set to miss 14 out of 19 of its biodiversity targets and still has a long way to go to clean up its polluted lakes, rivers, and coastal waters. 

In more positive news, Britain is on track to exceed its 2020 goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 37%; reducing the level of nitrogen oxides in the air by 55% compared to 2005 levels; and ensuring that at least 10% of coastal and marine areas are protected habitats. 

Ammonia, PM2.5, water, and waste targets are currently enforced by the European Commission; Brexit will therefore have a likely impact on enforcement. If the UK leaves the EU with a deal, penalties would still be managed externally during any transition period, with targets enforced domestically thereafter. However, a no-deal Brexit could leave a governance gap. 

Roth believes “there is a need for tighter environmental policies compared to current regulations, which are based solely on acute human health…” The evidence indicates that the educational and human capital effects exist at pollution levels well below current environmental standards.

Those who suffer the most from air pollution also tend to be residents of the poorest parts of cities who are more exposed. “Therefore, improving air quality may have a particularly great effect on underprivileged students, potentially enhancing their ability to achieve positive socio-economic mobility,” he says.