We CAN fix this! How the Climate and Nature Bill will restore our waterways

Our waterways are in crisis. 

Polluted by sewage and agricultural run-off, and at risk from the impacts of increased rainfall and flooding caused by climate breakdown, the UK’s rivers are under threat

With the UK now one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, our rivers are in the front line of the crisis. Plummeting biodiversity and impaired river health is preventing them from performing their vital role in absorbing carbon, protecting us from flooding, and maintaining valuable ecosystems.  

The Climate and Nature Bill is bold, new proposed UK legislation that treats the climate and nature crises in a joined up fashion. It is based on the understanding that we cannot fight the climate crisis without nature based solutions, while also recognising that nature is at risk from rising emissions.

The CAN Bill commits the UK to meeting the 1.5°C target agreed at Paris in 2015 and to halting and reversing nature decline by 2030, in line with our CBD COP15 commitments agreed in Montréal in 2022.

In doing this, the Bill opens the door for a transformational approach to our waterways. 

If the CAN Bill became law, we would need to: 

  • Stop waterways being treated as open sewers, ensuring that rivers were restored to full health and making them flourishing sites of biodiversity in line with the commitment to reverse nature decline by 2030. 
  • Restore wetlands and natural habitats, thereby reducing the risk of flooding caused by increased rainfall (due to climate impacts)—while also boosting biodiversity, from insects to mammals. 
  • Treat rivers as an essential part of the carbon cycle, recognising their value in transporting carbon into the oceans, where it is stored in plants and sediment.  
  • Recognise that polluted and warming rivers are a significant source of emissions of greenhouse gasses—and link their restoration with the aim to reduce emissions. Heavily polluted rivers emit up to ten times more CO2 and methane—and 15 times more nitrous oxide than healthy ones.
  • Centalise focus on Natural Flood Management (NFM) techniques which work with nature to slow the flow of water, reducing the chance of flash floods; increasing water storage throughout the landscape; and implementing sustainable drainage systems (SUDS). 
  • Promote NFM techniques to help us adapt to the risk of climate change. These techniques include swapping concrete flood defences for natural materials; increasing plant cover on farmland; and re-meandering artificially straightened rivers. 

Far from being overflows for our unwanted sewage and agricultural run-off, rivers are vital partners in our quest to establish a more sustainable way of living and working in harmony with the natural world. Restoring and maintaining them doesn’t just benefit nature—it also benefits human health, prosperity, and well-being. 

Some might argue that the UK already has the Environment Act 2021 to solve these issues. However, current legislation only offers to halt the decline of species by 2030, which the Committee on Climate Change says could leave “natural ecosystems in a worse state than they are today”

In addition, the Act’s definition of halting species abundance decline is restricted to a finite list of species and ‘ecological features’, rather than the overall health and integrity of nature as a whole. 

Furthermore, the Environment Act does not address the UK’s ecological footprint—the destruction created overseas through the production, transportation, consumption, and disposal of all the goods we consume.

Crucially, neither the Environment Act nor the Climate Change Act (2008) offer a comprehensive, joined-up approach to dealing with the interconnected climate and nature crises. Nor do these laws include the public in creating a strategy for the UK to find a fair way forward. 

The CAN Bill does, though, through its use of a citizens’ assembly, selected at random and representative of the UK population. This assembly would assess evidence from experts and make recommendations for Parliament to vote on. This would ensure that Parliamentary sovereignty remains intact, while also ensuring that people’s voices are properly heard.

So as we shake our collective heads at the damage done to our rivers, it is important to remember that there is a solution. If we want to save the UK’s waterways from the triple threat of climate, pollution, and biodiversity loss, we need to make the CAN Bill into the CAN Act.

To learn more about the Climate and Nature Bill, please visit zerohour.uk.

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