Government must have an effective system for measuring its environmental performance in order to understand whether it is on track to meet its long-term environmental goals, assess whether its existing policies are effective and fulfil its international obligations, according to a report by the National Audit Office.

A good system of environmental metrics1 is particularly important in the light of the government’s 25-year plan for the environment3, setting out its ambition to improve the natural environment in England within a generation. Meeting this ambition will require significant and co-ordinated action across a range of different sectors of the economy, and in some areas, it will involve reversing long-term trends of decline. Good performance metrics will be essential in ensuring that the government’s ambitions are met.

Today’s report is an update to a 2015 NAO briefing4 on environmental and sustainability metrics which raised a number of concerns. While there are aspects of government’s approach which are good, and which compare favourably internationally, as a whole weaknesses we raised in 2015 remain.

The UK is one of the countries that has progressed furthest with developing data sources to report against a set of globally agreed indicators for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Climate Change Act 2008 is widely regarded as establishing a robust framework for measuring progress on climate change mitigation and adaptation, which includes metrics on projected as well as current performance on greenhouse gas emissions.

However, there remains a patchwork of metric sets that do not clearly fit with government’s overall objectives or with each other. While the UK publishes data for 64% of the global Sustainable Development Goal indicators, there is a timelag with a third of published information at least three or more years old.

Separate NAO reports have also raised concerns about how effectively metrics are used to inform decision-making in practice. On air quality, the NAO found that that there was no clear single responsibility within government for knowing whether the initiatives form a coherent portfolio that delivers good value for money as a whole for air quality. For packaging recycling, Defra had not asked important questions about risks and value for money when reviewing performance against the main measure.  

Much environmental monitoring is currently undertaken by the EU. Government needs to put robust performance measurement and monitoring processes in place to meet its commitment that leaving the EU will not mean environmental protections are diluted.  At the same time, EU exit could bring opportunities for Defra to review their wider reporting to assess whether it all adds value in relation to UK goals.

Government’s plans for a new group of performance indicators to measure progress against its 25-year Environment Plan are promising. These aim to give an overview of the health of the natural environment, including the quality of air, water and wildlife diversity. It should help decision-makers understand whether government’s actions as a whole are consistent with its ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation, and it should help highlight potential interactions between different policy areas.

However, there are several issues that government will need to address. Defra has not yet done enough to engage other parts of government with its approach, nor to set clear accountabilities for performance. This is despite the Departments for Transport, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Ministry for Homes, Communities and Local Government having a significant impact on the natural environment. There is no clear, single point of ownership for performance as a whole across government on the 25-year Environment Plan and more work is needed to embed environmental metrics into government’s core planning and performance monitoring.

Government is establishing a new environmental watchdog to fill a potential ‘governance gap’ after EU exit, given the role that the European Commission has played in holding government to account for environmental legislation, including on air quality. The draft Environment Bill would establish the watchdog as the Office of Environmental Protection, with an obligation to publish an independent annual progress report on implementation of the 25 year Environment Plan, and to investigate the compliance of public authorities with environmental law. It would be able to set its own strategy, and would have the power to issue formal compliance notices to public authorities and to apply for judicial review. It will be funded through Defra, with a Chair appointed by the Secretary of State for Defra. While in principle this is not incompatible with it being functionally independent it could bring risks for its independence in practice, or for its perceived independence.

Robust performance data and transparent reporting is essential for Parliament and the public to hold government to account on its ambition to improve the natural environment within a generation. Government’s new system of environmental metrics could transform its approach. But the critical tests will be whether all parts of government actually use this information to monitor progress and take action, and whether the new environmental watchdog has the ‘teeth’ to play its part effectively.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Environmental metrics: government’s approach to monitoring the state of the natural environment

Notes for editors

Key facts One-third proportion of the published data for one key set of environmental metrics that is three or more years old 161 number of current environmental reporting obligations to European bodies that may no longer be reported after EU exit Four main cross-cutting sets of environmental metrics that government currently reports against or monitors Two new sets of metrics which government plans to use to assess its progress in improving the state of the natural environment, covering 230 actions, and 65 anticipated outcomes.   1.      Metrics are measures or indicators of performance. 2.      Government currently collects and reports a wide range of environmental performance metrics, which include reporting against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and international Conventions on climate change and biodiversity. 3.      In January 2018 the government published: ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment', which sets out what the government will do to improve the environment, within a generation. 4.      In 2015 the NAO produced a briefing for the Environmental Audit Committee on environmental and sustainability metrics. This raised concerns about the timeliness of some of government's environmental data, its alignment with objectives, and whether there were sufficient mechanisms for action if performance was poor. 5.      Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website. 6.      The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 785 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services. Our work led to audited savings of £741 million in 2017.

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