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UK Policymakers Face New Era as Environmental Principles Take Center Stage in Policy Implementation

In a groundbreaking development, Environmental principles have been officially incorporated into the policy-making process for UK ministers and government officials. This transformational shift places a legal obligation on ministers to embrace a comprehensive set of environmental principles when formulating policies, marking a significant milestone in the nation's commitment to environmental protection.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the new environmental principles duty - which must be adhered to by all ministers and government officials - was designed to "ensure the environment is at the heart of government policy-making."

The environmental principles duty mandates policymakers to give "due regard" to the framework, meticulously detailed in the Environmental Principles Policy Statement, presented before Parliament in January. It enforces a legal obligation on Ministers and officials to harmonize policy decisions with five critical environmental principles. These principles commence with integrating environmental safeguards into all policy-making processes.

One pivotal principle calls for government policymakers to adopt a proactive stance in averting environmental harm through policy design. Additionally, a "rectification at source" principle emphasizes addressing ecological damage at its origins, minimizing the necessity for later remediation efforts.

The duty further necessitates adherence to a "polluter pays" principle, compelling those responsible for environmental damage to bear the associated costs. Finally, the precautionary principle dictates that in cases of potentially serious or irreversible environmental harm, a lack of scientific certainty should not serve as an excuse to postpone cost-effective measures aimed at averting ecological degradation.

This mandate applies to all new or revised government policies, with specific exemptions for national security and budgetary decisions, as clarified by Defra.

Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), welcomed the implementation of the legal duty on ministers, noting that the watchdog had been "a strong supporter" of the Environmental Principles Policy Statement so that consideration of environmental protection and improvement would have a "rightful place at the center of policy decisions."

Stacey added that the environmental principles could be a "powerful tool" in helping the current government meet its ambition of leaving the environment better for future generations if embedded "effectively" across government departments.

The OEP will scrutinize and monitor the implementation of the environmental principles across the government and has pledged to report its findings on compliance levels after next summer.

"This monitoring is aimed at providing us with valuable insights into how successfully the EPPS is embedded across government, assessing its consistency and compliance with the law, and evaluating its impact on environmental protection and improvement within policymaking," Stacey said. "Through our scrutiny and reporting, we will seek to highlight any issues that would benefit from rectification at an early stage to increase the likelihood of the EPPS making a positive impact on protecting and improving the environment as quickly and effectively as possible."

Ruth Chambers, the senior fellow at campaign group Greener UK, welcomed the launch of the principles as a "game changer if used imaginatively and with purpose."

"Policies on chemicals, planning, and rivers must be designed to protect people from environmental harm and ensure that polluters pay," she said. "We'll be looking to ministers to ensure that their departments make full use of the principles and not consign them to a tick box exercise."

The environmental principles duty for policymakers is one of the cornerstones of environmental governance outlined in the Environment Act 2021. This development comes amidst a series of legal challenges against the government, questioning the adequacy of existing environmental policies and their compliance with the law.

Notably, Friends of the Earth has taken legal action against the government, asserting that its climate adaptation plans are "unlawful." This legal challenge, supported by a disability rights activist and a coastal erosion campaigner, requests a judicial review of the UK's National Adaptation Programme (NAP).

The claimants argue that the current adaptation plan, NAP3, breaches the Climate Change Act by failing to establish lawful adaptation objectives and failing to assess and publish risks related to plan implementation. They also contend that these deficiencies infringe upon human rights by failing to safeguard their lives, homes, and property from foreseeable climate impacts.

"We need our government to take urgent action to curb emissions and put in place credible plans to keep us safe from the extreme weather and impacts of climate change already devastating people's lives," said Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth. "But the government's latest adaptation plan continues to fall far short of what's needed - and comes amid backtracking on the green policies needed to tackle climate change."

Simultaneously, the food campaign group Feedback has initiated a judicial review of the government's decision to abandon plans for mandatory food waste reporting by businesses, signaling ongoing scrutiny of environmental policies and their impact.

"The government's decision to scrap its plans to introduce mandatory food waste reporting ignores its impact assessment, the advice of waste and climate experts, and the preference of the vast majority of consultation respondents," said Carina Millstone, executive director of Feedback.


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