Opinion: Environmental regulation in the 21st century

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I start with a statement of the obvious. The aim of environmental regulation is to produce measurable improvements in the environment. But how much environmental regulation expresses the desired environmental outcome? How much, on the other hand, sets out the regulatory process? Not enough of the former, too much of the latter.

That unremarkable statement of aim is at the heart of the Environment Agency’s Vision, published in January 2001. In setting out, even in the most general terms, the outcomes which we felt to be desirable, we set ourselves and others a set of conundrums about our current regulatory practice — what it can deliver and what it cannot; the proportionality of effort to outcome; how to deploy the range of tools available.

Classic, direct regulation is one, but only one, of those tools. In many circumstances it is the best. It has a long, successful history of substantial benefit for people and the environment. Great smogs are a thing of the past. Our air, rivers, beaches and drinking water are the cleanest they have been since before the industrial revolution.

The Environment Agency and its predecessors have played an important part. For example, sulphur dioxide emissions from Agency-regulated activities have decreased by 70 per cent since 1990. This has benefits for human health and society. Ongoing studies on the cost of pollution in the UK are giving estimates of between £4 and £9 billion per annum.

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