Toxic air that harms health, and water pollution from sewage and farming must be tackled as urgent priorities, a new environmental watchdog has warned.
Overfishing and damage to sea floors from trawling, loss of natural habitats, and degraded soils must also be urgently dealt with by the UK Government, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) urges in its first report.
Glenys Stacey, the OEP chairwoman, said that despite ambition by the government the environment is in a “precarious” state and suffering worrying and persistent declines in air and water quality, species and habitats.
The report calls for the government to make a comprehensive “stocktake” of the state of the natural world, set out ambitious legal targets and coherent action, and to make the environment a priority across all departments.
Addressing the crisis in England’s air, water, landscapes and seas should have the same level of cross-government support and urgency as climate efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, it urges.
The OEP is also calling on the government to reverse the decline in funding for monitoring the state of the environment over the last decade – but does not call for more resources overall to tackling the environmental crisis.
The watchdog was set up as part of the post-Brexit regime for managing England’s environment, with a role for monitoring progress on reversing harm to the natural world and acting as a regulator on green laws.
Its first monitoring report on the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, announced in 2018, warns that, while the plans for the natural world are ambitious, progress on delivering them has been too slow.
It warns of “tipping points” where slow, persistent declines in nature become catastrophic – such as setting fishing limits above scientific advice, which can lead to fish stock crashes, and the continued damage to the seabed, which destroys the marine ecosystem.
Failing to prioritise these issues and address them before the tipping points are reached will make it much harder to reverse the declines, Stacey said.
And she 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.
“Our rivers are in a poor state, bird and other species numbers are in serious decline, poor air quality threatens the health of many, and our seas and sea floor are not managed sustainably.”
Turning the situation around will not be easy, she acknowledged, but urged the government to set a clear and ambitious vision for the environment which is prioritised across all departments.
“All of us have an inarguable dependency on the environment, and its precarious state should be a matter of concern for all of government and a national priority,” she warned.