Environmental Law News Update

December 11, 2020

In this latest Environmental Law News Update, Charles Morgan, Christopher Badger and Mark Davies consider the fatal accident at Avonmouth, publication of the UK’s Sixth Carbon Budget and consultation on the Environment Agency’s charges for a UK Emissions Trading Scheme.

Fatal Accident at Avonmouth

The awful explosion at the Avonmouth Sewage Treatment Works last week is a stark reminder that, in more than just the most obvious respects, sewage is not a benign substance. The chemistry of sewage is extremely complex. It produces numerous gases, including methane and hydrogen sulphide, particularly in the course of anaerobic digestion. Both are highly flammable (and poisonous). There is also the risk that other flammable compounds are introduced into the system, for example by the use of main sewers to dispose of household or industrial chemicals, particularly in unlawful circumstances. Any confinement of sewage can cause dangerous concentrations of the volatile gases present. Indeed in Victorian and Edwardian times sewer gas was used, principally in the North East of England, as a convenient and efficient means of illumination of the streets through which sewers flowed, essentially as a virtuous by-product of the harmless disposal of the gases. Some lamps which remain in Sheffield have recently been restored and no fewer than 10 in Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear appear on the “local list” supplementary planning document of North Tyneside Council as structures of local architectural and historic interest.

Despite bad press over its propensity for causing environmental pollution, at the heart of the sewerage industry lies a continuous, never-ending, absolutely necessary, usually thankless and, at times, very dangerous task.

UK’s Sixth Carbon Budget Published

On 9 December the Committee on Climate Change (“the CCC”) published the UK’s Sixth Carbon Budget to cover the period 2033-2037. However, before the Budget was published, the CCC wrote to the Secretary of State for BEIS (at his invitation) sharing their recommendations ahead of publication.

The Budget contains one recommendation which the remainder of the Budget is aimed towards achieving. That recommendation is that:

“…the UK commits to reduce territorial emissions by at least 68% from 1990 to 2030, as part of the UK’s national determined contribution to the UN process [under the Paris Agreement].”

This is a big recommendation for a number of reasons. Firstly, for context, the existing EU ambition is for a 40% reduction by 2030 against a 1990 basis, whilst an increase to 55% is being considered (note that the EU target is an aggregate one, so some countries have a higher target than 55%). A commitment to a 68% reduction (spoiler alert: Boris Johnson has already publicly announced it) would therefore represent an impressive increase (some, in Government, would no doubt say it represents a ‘levelling-up’, but this is not a computer game), in terms of the UK’s role in combating climate change.

Secondly, if it is made a binding target, there may be scope for cases to be litigated against it. Whilst no policy is ever going to be truly binary, i.e. Policy X on building roads, for example, is contrary to the 68% reduction target, having the target will likely swing the pendulum further towards policies having to be greener going forwards so that the target is met.

The 68% target, as the letter and Budget make clear, also excludes the UK’s emissions from international aviation and shipping (as these are excluded from the underlying UN Convention), but the recommendation of the CCC is that the UK’s nationally determined contribution should include ‘clear commitments to act on emissions from aviation and shipping, including both long-term and interim targets’.

The Budget itself also includes a ‘Methodology Report’, a ‘Policy Report’, the supporting charts and data and a public Call for Evidence on new research projects, three new expert advisory groups as well as ‘deep dives’ into the roles of local authorities and businesses.

In the run up to COP next year (which of course, the Secretary of State for BEIS, Alok Sharma MP is also president of), these commitments, if followed through between now and then with meaningful policies, do put the UK on the front foot in terms of leading by example.

The letter from the CCC may be found here

The Budget may be found here

Environment Agency consults on its charges for a UK Emissions Trading Scheme

On 7 December 2020 the Environment Agency published a consultation on its charges for the duties that the Environment Agency will have to perform from 1 January 2021 running a UK Emissions trading scheme.

The Government has not yet confirmed if a UK Emissions trading scheme or a carbon emissions tax will operate from 1 January 2021. The Environment Agency has stated that the consultation is necessary for the operation of either policy as the regulatory activity would be the same across both systems.

In the UK there are about 1000 operators of installations currently participating in the EU ETS, of which 666 are in England and would be regulated by the EA from 1 January 2021 under a UK ETS. The Environment Agency does not believe that there will be any customers who are significantly affected by the proposed charging scheme for a UK ETS. There is an existing regime with existing customers who are currently paying charges. It is stated that most charge payers will benefit from the UK ETS and will see reductions in their charges.

The EA has also proposed increased fees relating to managing installation permits. Charges have not changed since 2010 and no longer reflect the true cost of these activities. As a percentage change the changes could be considered significant. For example, it is proposed that the cost of transferring a permit will rise from £430 to £1340.

It is also proposed that charges will be updated annually in line with inflation, using the Consumer Price Index.

The new charges will take effect in England from April 2021. The consultation will close on 29 January 2021.

The consultation can be found here

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