Watchdog warns of tipping points for “precarious” UK environment

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Environment decline will be irreversible if government doesn’t act

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) says it is incredibly concerned about the “precarious state” of the UK’s environment in a new report.

The OEP warn that we could soon reach environmental tipping points, such as dead, polluted rivers, the decline of fish stocks and wildlife loss if action isn’t taken. Once tipping points are reached, the decline is irreversible.

In 2018, the government launched a 25-year environment plan, but the report says the delivery of the plan has been incredibly slow and has so far failed to stop the loss of species and resources being used unsustainably.

The OEP, which was set up under the 2021 Environment Act, urges the government to implement urgent and coherent measures.

The chair of the OEP, Dame Glenys Stacey, said: “The 25-year environment plan was an ambitious attempt to confront the challenges facing the environment, yet we continue to see worrying and persistent trends of environmental decline.

“We’re asking the government to recognise that tipping points are fast approaching in some areas because if it doesn’t, it’s going to be so much harder. When you get to very limited numbers [of wildlife], the effort involved in turning that around is immense and takes an awful long time.

“Our argument is that with the resources that are already available to government, for protecting, restoring and enhancing the environment, a much better job could be done, if the building blocks that we highlight are considered.

“If there is a persistent effort, and a real attention to prioritisation in relation to environmental matters, we’ll get a long way.”

The OEP’s report highlights six “building blocks” that are needed to address environmental decline, including understanding the environmental pressures, a coherent strategy and legally binding targets.

Dame Stacey added: “The building blocks need to be firmer, clearer and weightier and pursued with true determination and intent. A lot of environmental trends take decades to become apparent and there are always more immediate pressures for government, so if we’re not careful, the environment can always be second fiddle. We’ll rue the day that we don’t take stock and address that.”

The OEP’s chief insights officer, Simon Brockington, says that tipping points arise when a slow decline suddenly becomes catastrophic.

He said: “We’re seeing long-term declines in biodiversity and we’re calling on the government to address those. The serial setting of catch quotas above catch limits over time can lead to fish stock crash and we’ve seen many examples of that.”

Brockington added that seabed trawling and the fertilisers and manure polluting rivers and farmland are activities that can lead to tipping points.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We welcome this report, which acknowledges that our Environment Act gives us new tools to make a real difference to our environment, putting it at the heart of government and transitioning us to a sustainable future with nature on the road to recovery during this decade.”


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“We’re asking the government to recognise that tipping points are fast approaching in some areas because if it doesn’t, it’s going to be so much harder.” Dame Glenys Stacey, Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection

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