Two years in the making, the UK’s Environment Bill finally received Royal Assent in November 2021, during COP26, and became the Environment Act – meaning it is officially a law (FW 269). Even at this significant milestone, however, much remains to be decided.
Key aspects of the law are still in question and will be decided as the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural affairs (Defra) elaborates the Secondary Legislation – the text that will define the implementation of the Act’s provisions. These aspects include the details and scope of the due diligence requirement, which commodities will be caught by the Act, which businesses will be subject to it, what checks they will be required to perform and report on, and how the requirements will be enforced.
A public consultation is now open until 11 March 2022 and Defra will be accepting evidence and arguments. Analysis of the consultation documents is ongoing, but a few clear priorities for civil society have emerged.
The scope of commodities covered is crucial. Defra have identified seven key commodities as the main drivers of the UK’s deforestation footprint overseas: cattle (beef and leather), cocoa, coffee, maize, palm oil, rubber and soy. However, they do not intend to apply the legislation to all of these at once, but to phase them in over time. With forests disappearing at an alarming rate, it is vital to push for the legislation to be as ambitious as possible from the start, both in terms of the roster of commodities and the speed at which this will be expanded – even as business will likely push for ambition to be, again, watered down. It is also important to ensure the law does not create a green lane for certification: countless investigations have found deforestation and other violations linked to certified products, so allowing them to bypass scrutiny would create a major loophole in the law.
It will now be crucial for civil society to hold Defra’s feet to the fire, to ensure that the detail of the law is driven by the needs of forests and forest peoples.