21st-century thought leadership.


Mark Cope, Associate

For our industry to remain relevant, we need to demonstrate understanding in tackling complex socio-economic and environmental issues, and a multidisciplinary approach.

We are two decades into the 21st century, and pressing environmental and socio-economic challenges are at the forefront of change in the environment sector.

As a result of sustained atmospheric rises in greenhouse gas emissions, global heating is fast approaching the scientifically defined limit of 1.5-2°C. Over a century of human population growth, industrialisation and land use change have caused global biodiversity declines that now threaten widespread extinctions and ecosystem collapse. The covid-19 pandemic and current cost-of-living crisis have exacerbated health and wellbeing inequalities broadly associated with declining health outcomes in western societies.

In response to these challenges, the UK Government has introduced world-leading legislation over the past two decades, and is currently introducing new legislation based on its 25-year Environmental Plan. But will this be enough to address the scale of these challenges?

Legislative agenda

Published in July 2018, the stated ambition of this plan is ‘to leave the natural environment in a better state than it found it’. The plan sets out 10 aims, ranging from achieving clean and plentiful water to enhancing biosecurity. It also stresses ‘a natural capital approach’ to long-term decision making, aims to protect and conserve 30% of land and sea area, and halt species decline by 2030.

Back in 2008, the UK had become the first country to set a long-term and legally binding target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Change Act required the Government to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels, and was later replaced with a more ambitious net zero target in 2019. The Act also places a requirement for the Government to produce a National Adaptation Programme and statutory carbon budgets every five years.

Subsequently, the 2021 Environment Act set out post-Brexit transitional arrangements for environmental protection in England and Wales, by ‘establishing a new governance framework with the creation of the Office of Environmental Protection and setting new regulations and targets relating to resource efficiency, air quality, water, biodiversity, product recall and chemicals.’ The Act also includes a requirement for developers to provide at least 10% net ecological gain on new development projects, and for local authorities to put in place local nature recovery strategies.

More recently, in response to the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, the Government published its Levelling Up Bill, which would impose a legal duty to set and report on a number of levelling-up targets, broadly aimed at increasing prosperity, widening opportunity and ensuring that no region is left behind. The bill also incorporates aspects of the Government’s ambitions for planning reform, including changes to how consents and plans would be assessed to allow it to set ‘specified environmental outcomes’, linked with the 25-year Environmental Plan.

Sector response

The need to respond to environmental and societal challenges will become increasingly pertinent as the 21st-century progresses.

As a sector we will need to step up to the challenge, to demonstrate understanding and thought leadership in tackling these complex issues. A multidisciplinary approach is essential, as this provides the relevant depth of technical knowledge required to position our consultancy advice, both in the interests of our clients and of wider humanity.