Environment tipping points fast approaching in UK, says watchdog

From fisheries collapse to dead rivers, official body urges government to urgently turn ambition into action

Environmental tipping points are fast approaching in the UK, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has said.

Potential tipping points – where gradual decline suddenly becomes catastrophic – include loss of wildlife, fisheries collapse and dead, polluted rivers, the watchdog said. The OEP is a new official body set up after Brexit to hold the government to account. Its first report, published on Thursday, says ministers have shown ambition but that action is too slow.

The government launched a 25-year environment plan in 2018, but the OEP says persistent and worrying declines continue and minister must take the opportunities provided by the new Environment Act to implement urgent and coherent measures.

“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,” said Dame Glenys Stacey, the OEP chair. “When you get to very limited numbers [of wildlife species], the effort involved in turning that around is immense and takes an awful long time.”

She highlighted ongoing damage to marine wildlife. “Progress there has been stately at best. But the government can, in large part, arrest these adverse trends, if it has the will.”

Stacey added: “A sustainable environment is not just nice to have but essential for human wellbeing, progress and prosperity. Turning the tide to achieve this is exceptionally difficult, yet it is needed urgently for our wealth, health and wellbeing, and absolutely essential for the generations to come.

“The first 25-year environment plan was an ambitious attempt to confront the challenges facing the environment, but progress towards delivering that ambition has been too slow. “We continue to see worrying and persistent trends of environmental decline. But with the Environment Act, the government has a precious opportunity.”

Simon Brockington, the OEP’s chief insights officer, said: “A tipping point arises at the point where a very slow and persistent decline suddenly becomes catastrophic. 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.”

He also highlighted seabed trawling, which he said “destroys the integrity of the ecosystem”, and the pollution of farmland and rivers with fertilisers and livestock manure. “For tipping points, it would be those I would highlight,” he said.

Natalie Prosser, the watchdog’s chief executive, said the UK was one of the most biodiversity-depleted countries in the world, and air pollution caused tens of thousands of deaths a year. “Changes in climate are affecting the environment and biodiversity. We are heading towards a major tipping point.”

She said the government had missed many environmental targets, and funding for monitoring the environment had fallen in the last 10 years.

The OEP report identifies six “building blocks” needed to rescue the environment in the UK, including a comprehensive stocktake of the state of nature, a commitment to action from all government departments, long-term legally binding targets and accountability for delivering those targets.

“The building blocks need to be firmer, clearer and weightier and pursued with true determination and intent,” Stacey said. “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.”

Richard Benwell, the head of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of 65 nature and conservation charities, said: “It has been 10 years since the government promised to pass on the environment in better condition – 10 years in which biodiversity has continued to decline. The OEP poses a simple challenge: that overarching ambition must now be rooted in ambitious targets and an urgent delivery strategy.”

Joan Edwards, of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “For all the initial promise of the 25-year environment plan, the government has been seriously dragging its feet. Targets for reversing nature’s decline are so unambitious that in 20 years’ time we could have even less wildlife than we have now. The steps outlined by the OEP provide a framework for government to deliver on its promises, but we need much greater political willpower.”

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. We are currently consulting on legally binding environmental targets, which include a world-leading target to halt species decline by 2030.”

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