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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

UK needs Sustainable Economy Act to extend climate change laws to wider environmental crisis, says IPPR

New targets including biodiversity, soil fertility and air quality must be enforced so that we live within natural limits

The UK should urgently extend climate change laws to other areas of environmental breakdown including biodiversity, soil fertility and air quality, according to an IPPR paper published today.

The think tank calls for a UK Sustainable Economy Act to set binding targets that would protect the health of a wider range of natural systems, beyond the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate breakdown.

This would enable the UK to enshrine in domestic law existing European Union safeguards after Brexit, some of which – despite being more limited – will fall away without new legislation.

But new targets should encompass the wider environmental impact of all economic activity on these systems – including on countries that export goods and services to the UK, the IPPR paper argues.

It follows publication earlier this year of the award-winning IPPR report, This is a Crisis: facing up to the age of environmental breakdown, which argued that a deadly combination of damage to land, soil, air and animal populations alongside climate change is creating catastrophic global risk.

As a result, the world faces a growing risk of a “perfect storm” of runaway changes caused by widespread environmental breakdown, according to that report. Natural systems are now being destabilised so quickly that dangerous “tipping points” may soon be reached, with potentially extreme consequences that may threaten the stability of societies, that report said.

Today’s IPPR paper on the policy implications for the UK argues for a new way of thinking about economics, and calls for:

  • The UK government to pass a Sustainable Economy Act to extend the range of the Climate Change Act to the wider range of damaging environmental impacts discussed in that report – including biodiversity, soil fertility and air quality.
  • New binding targets to be set across all these systems, encompassing the environmental impact of goods and services produced in and imported to the UK, and working towards restoring as well as conserving these natural systems.
  • A new Committee on Sustainability to advise on objectives, similar to the UK’s expert Climate Change Committee.
  • A new enforcement body to hold the government to account, with more extensive powers than those already planned for the UK’s new Office of Environmental Protection – to ensure the Government is held to account after Brexit.
  • Deeper changes to prevailing economic models, including a new conception of prosperity and living standards, rapid increases in green investment, and a leading role for the state and local communities.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, IPPR Associate Fellow and the paper’s lead author said:

“The Climate Change Act and the UK’s target of net-zero decarbonisation by 2050 effectively places a greenhouse gas constraint on the economy. It is vital that similar constraints are extended to all the areas of environmental breakdown. A Sustainable Economy Act can do this.

“We urgently need to rethink economics so that we can continue to live within the UK’s and the planet’s means - protecting the many natural systems that are crucial to everyone’s ability to lead good lives in a way that is just, sustainable and prepared.

“Environmental breakdown is an unprecedented challenge that requires rapid structural change to social and economic systems of a scale and pace unseen in human history. We need a new story of how the economy works, for the benefit of whom, and how it relates to nature – and a new economic model that rapidly slows environmental breakdown. Our future depends on it.”

Luke Murphy, Head of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, said:

“The Climate Change Act was a revolutionary piece of legislation that required the government to limit the total carbon emissions of the UK to levels set in law. But as IPPR’s work has shown, climate change is not the only environmental threat.

“With much of the UK’s environmental policy deriving from our membership of the EU there is an even greater and more urgent need to put in place a Sustainable Economy Act to protect all aspects of our environment after Brexit – with or without a deal.

“This should be supported by a new Committee on Sustainability to advise the Government and a new enforcement body with extensive powers to hold the government to account.”



1. The IPPR paper Facing the Crisis: Rethinking economics for the age of environmental breakdown will be published at 0001 on Thursday Month 99. It will be available for download at:

2. Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request.

3. The government’s draft Environment Bill, which is crucial to maintaining the protection for the environment post-Brexit, could be the vehicle for introducing the content proposed in the Sustainable Economy Act. However, as many environmental organisations have pointed out, as currently drafted it fails to introduce the necessary framework, legally binding targets or interim milestones necessary to drive real-world environmental improvements.

4. The proposed Sustainable Economy Act should be overseen by two independent bodies: one to advise and another to enforce, IPPR says.
 - The advisory body – potentially called the Committee on Sustainability – should be an independent, expert public body, modelled on the Committee on Climate Change.
 - The enforcement body should be independent from the Committee on Sustainability and have powers to hold the whole of government to account on meeting the legally-binding targets of the SEA, taking action to enforce any breaches. The Office of Environmental Protection, proposed by the government as part of its Environment Bill, could play this role but, as yet, the Office is set to have inadequate enforcement powers.

5. IPPR’s previous report This Is A Crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown was published in February 2019 and can be found here:
The report won the 2019 Prospect award for best think tank report in Science, Health, Environment and Energy.

6. The UK exceeds its share per head of five out of seven “sustainability boundaries”, according to analysis cited in This is a Crisis. Apart from over-reliance on fossil fuels the report listed issues including:
 - The average population sizes of the most threatened species in the UK have decreased by two-thirds since 1970.
 - The UK is one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world”.
 - Nearly 85 per cent of fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia has been lost since 1850, with the remainder at risk of being lost over the next 30–60 years.

7. Neither report is the work of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission but will be submitted to the Commission as evidence. More on the Commission can be found here:

8. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence.