United Kingdom country briefing - The European environment — state and outlook 2015

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
9 min read
Photo: © Martin Fowell

Main themes and sectors addressed in the national State of Environment report

Responsibility for the environment is devolved to the four different administrations[1]: the Northern Ireland Assembly; the Scottish Government; the Welsh Government; and within England, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. There is no single State of Environment (SOE) report for the United Kingdom (UK). This is a summary of independent country level key products.

  • England: England Natural Environment Indicators[2]; Sustainable Development Indicators[3]
  • Northern Ireland: From Evidence to Opportunity[4]; Northern Ireland Environmental Statistics Reports[5]
  • Scotland: SEWeb[6]
  • Wales: SOE Report for Wales[7]

All reports use an indicator based approach but the methodology, in particular the assessment period, differs. For each part of the UK a document containing more detailed analysis has been uploaded onto the European Environment Agency's SOE platform[8].

The results presented here are primarily from existing UK level reports[3],[9],[10], supplemented by additional data sources[11].

Key findings of the State of Environment report 

Energy and Climate Change

There has been a steady overall decline in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated in the UK over the past 20 years. Emissions of CO2 fell by 20% and emissions of all GHGs by 26% in the period 1990-2012[12]. Emissions resulting from UK consumption[13] rose in the period 1993-2004, partially due to an increased reliance on imports. By 2010 this had fallen compared to the 2004 peak, possibly due to the global financial crisis.

Total primary energy consumption for the UK fell by 7% in the period 1990-2012 to its lowest level since 1985. There have been changing levels of energy consumption by sector over time e.g. the industry sector was responsible for 17% of total final UK consumption in 2012 compared to 40% in 1970.

A UK Renewable Energy Roadmap was published in 2011. The UK is making progress towards meeting the target to deliver 15% of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. Between 2005 and 2012 the proportion of final energy consumption from renewable sources reached 4.1%.

Measurable impacts of climate change have been recorded across the UK. On average the UK is getting warmer[14]. Precipitation totals have not changed significantly.[15] There have been increases in sea levels and sea-surface temperatures[16].

Waste and Resource Use

Waste is viewed as a potential resource. Increased rates of reuse, recycling and energy recovery have resulted in a lower proportion of waste being disposed of in a way that causes environmental damage.

In 2013 the amount of household waste recycled, composted and reused was almost four times what it was in the period 2000-2001, but the rate of increase has slowed in recent years. Local authorities benchmark their waste management performances against each other using our 'WasteDataFlow' portal [17] which is expected to lead to further improvements. In 2011 about 90% of UK construction and demolition waste was recovered. In 2012 biodegradable municipal waste to landfill had been reduced to under 35% of the level in 1995. A charge on single-use carrier bags is in place in Wales (2011), Northern Ireland (2013) and due in Scotland (October 2014). The former resulted in around an 80% reduction in consumption of supermarket bags. A charge on single-use plastic bags will come into force in England in October 2015.

Fresh Water and Marine Environment

Our rivers and lakes are generally in moderate to good condition and there have been reductions in pollution over the past 25 years. The main issues are:

  • Loss of habitat as a result of development (historic and ongoing);
  • Rural diffuse pollution causing nutrient enrichment and habitat loss;
  • Energy production disrupting the natural movement of water.

We are addressing these issues and progress will be reflected in updated River Basin Management Plans.

The main pressures on the marine environment are damage to and loss of habitat on the seabed from fishing and the presence of physical structures[18].

In 2011, 47% of 15 assessed fish stocks around the UK were at full reproductive capacity. Other points to note include:

  • Populations of breeding seabirds have increased significantly over the long-term but decreased in the short-term (2007-2012).
  • Populations of seabirds and harbour seals are declining in some areas.
  • Contamination by hazardous substances (e.g.heavy metals) has reduced in most regions and there are few or no problems relating to radioactivity, eutrophication, or algal toxins in seafood.
  • Litter, particularly plastic is found on beaches, in the sea and on the seabed.

Air Quality

Emissions of air pollutants continue to show downward trends, with many reducing year-on-year. The area of sensitive habitat exceeding critical loads for acidification and eutrophication[19] significantly decreased in the period 1996-2010.

The number of days when air pollution is defined as "moderate or higher"[20],[21] indicates how often air pollution is raised to levels when there is an increased risk of health effects from short term exposure. Northern Ireland has seen a long-term decline in number of pollution days. In England the average number of pollution days[21] in urban sites fell from 15 to 14 in the period 2010-2013, and rose from 10 to 16 in rural sites. There is no clear trend for Scotland or Wales.


An agreed set of indicators[9] is used to track progress in relation to global targets at the UK level. Assessments covering the most recent 5 years for which comparable data are available show: 15 measures improving; 12 deteriorating; and 7 not changing (Figure 1). A number of measures show short term dips in a longer term increasing trend, e.g. volunteer participation and public expenditure.

Figure 1: Assessment of change: all measures (top) and two strategic goals (lower left and right).

Fig1 UK

Progress is being made in addressing some of the main drivers of biodiversity loss and in taking specific action to conserve biodiversity. However there are declines in aspects of biodiversity, specifically breeding farmland birds, priority species, and habitats of European importance.

During the period 1970-2012, populations of breeding farmland and woodland birds in the UK declined by 50% and 17% respectively[9]. In 2012 the population for breeding water and wetland birds was 16% lower than in 1975.

The UK has EU-level conservation responsibilities for a number of threatened species; in 2013, 39% of these species were in favourable conservation status, up from 26% in 2007[9]. In 2013, the conservation status of 10% of species was improving, including the large blue butterfly and Green Shield moss, but the status of 15% of other species was declining.

The UK also has EU-level conservation responsibilities for 77 habitats in the Atlantic Biogeographic Region. In 2007, 5% of habitats listed on Annex I of the Habitats Directive in the UK were in favourable conservation status, declining to 3% in 2013[9]. In 2013, the status was improving for 31% of the habitats and declining for 25%.

Main policy responses to key environmental challenges and concerns

There has been ongoing progress in implementing published commitments within each of the UK administrations to deliver a healthy natural environment.

Key measures include the following.

  • Leading the way: the 2008 Climate Change Act established the world's first legally binding climate change target. its aim is to reduce the UK's GHG emissions by at least 80% (from the 1990 baseline) by 2050. Restrictions are placed on the total amount of GHGs the UK can emit over five year periods. The UK has set the first four carbon budgets in law, covering the period from 2008-2027, and committed to halving emissions relative to 1990 during the fourth carbon budget period (2023-2027).
  • Delivering a shared agenda: through working in partnership with EU Member States to take action with reform of the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies; taking action to stop biodiversity loss, the illegal trade in endangered species, deforestation and illegal logging through implementation of Nagoya commitments on biodiversity; and contributing financially to international mechanisms.
  • Sustainable growth: combining regulatory controls for emissions, innovative technology and funding to protect and conserve the rural environment. There are initiatives such as land management schemes which provide funding to farmers and other land managers (based on income forgone) to deliver effective environmental management on their land. Also, setting up the Natural Capital Committee to advise Government, developing national natural capital accounts and other action to support creation of new markets for green goods and services.
  • Public participation and access to information: providing comprehensive insight into the condition of the UK environment with the dual aim to maximise the opportunities for public engagement and provide a means for the public to identify the environmental problems they consider to be the most important.

The UK is seeking to create a better natural environment and is putting in place foundations for a change in culture and behaviours. This cannot be done by government alone; individuals, businesses, community groups and Non-Governmental Organisations need to work collaboratively to achieve this ambition.

References and footnotes

[1] In Gibraltar the Department of the Environment holds the responsibility and produces:  Environmental Action and Management Plan 2013 and The Environment Matters Annual Report 2012

[10] These figures are for the UK only and do not routinely include Crown Dependencies or Overseas Territories.

[11] For example in relation to Impacts of Climate Change and Energy

[12] These figures are for the UK only and do not include Crown Dependencies or Overseas Territories (which are included in most of the statistics we publish on GHG emissions).

[13] Emissions associated with total UK consumption wherever in the world these emissions occur.

[14] Figures from the Hadley Centre Central England Temperature (HadCET) dataset show that 20 of the last 25 years experienced an average temperature that exceeded the 1900-2013 mean temperature. Parker, D.E., T.P. Legg, and C.K. Folland. 1992. A new daily Central England Temperature Series, 1772-1991. Int. J. Clim., Vol 12, pp 317-342 (PDF)

[15] Annual mean precipitation over England and Wales has not changed significantly since records began in 1766. Seasonal rainfall is highly variable, but appears to have decreased in summer and increased in winter.  Jenkins, G.J., Perry, M.C., and Prior, M.J. (2008). The climate of the United Kingdom and recent trends. Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter, UK.  Figures from the HadUKP - UK regional precipitation series show that in England and Wales 21 of the last 35 years have experienced a total rainfall above the 1766-2013 average of 917mm.  Alexander, L.V. and Jones, P.D. (2001) Updated precipitation series for the U.K. and discussion of recent extremes, Atmospheric Science Letters doi:10.1006/asle.2001.0025. 

[16] According to the UK Climate Projections (UKCP09) Sea level around the UK rose by about 1mm/yr in the 20th century (corrected for land movement); whilst the rate for the 1990s and 2000s has been higher than this.  Sea-surface temperatures around the UK coast have risen over the past three decades by about 0.7 ºC. Jenkins, G.J., Perry, M.C., and Prior, M.J. (2008). The climate of the United Kingdom and recent trends. Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter, UK.

[19] Due to nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and ammonia

[20] This indicator is intended to provide a summary measure of air pollutants that affect health. Information on the bandings and thresholds used is contained in the Annex to the latest edition of Air Quality Statistics in the UK.


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.


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