The fact that the summer of 2017 is turning out to be one of the hottest on record was not apparent in WWF’s Living Planet Centre today as Michael Gove set out his first public speech on the environment since becoming secretary of state. As one of the most energy efficient buildings in Europe, heat pumps are engaged to transport cooler air from underground whilst window features reflect sunlight in summer to prevent excess heat. A perfect atmosphere for delivering a much anticipated speech.
And what a warm reception it received. Through the lens of ‘national renewal’ following our exit from the EU, Gove set out an ambitious vision which the environment sector has been advocating for years. No environmental issue went unnoticed: marine plastics would be tackled, the ivory trade would be halted, and eleven million trees would be planted.
Brexit as a tool to improve the UK environment
Rather than being an obstacle to the government’s desire to improve the environment, Gove sees Brexit as a great tool: “in this unfrozen moment new possibilities occur.” Leaving the EU would give the UK the opportunity to create a new farming subsidy scheme that supports farmers whilst putting environmental restoration and enhancement first. He also wants to see the UK take control of its marine exclusive economic zone, creating world class fishing fleets alongside sustainable fisheries management.
The secretary of state even tackled head on one of the areas causing most concern as the UK exits the EU: the potential governance gap left as the relationship with the EU’s institutions comes to an end. Gove wants to see new institutions that will hold power to account, and that will make the UK a world leader in environmental legislation. This new environmental governance would be an economic asset to the country and attract expertise from all over the world.
Turning words into action
The sector wants to believe that Gove will deliver on this ambition but some fear it seems too good to be true. His speeches today and at the Green Alliance summer reception last week certainly saw his prose evolve from that of shy environmentalist to full-blown conservationist. But amidst an unpredictable political landscape, will he be able to deliver the ambition he is promising?
Having said that, Gove has already made some welcome decisions. The long awaited 25 year plan for the environment will be out by the end of the year and will be the basis for the upcoming agriculture and fisheries bills. He also used today’s speech to explicitly state that the UK should not compromise on environmental standards in any trade deal with the US, whilst criticising President Trump’s decision on the Paris Agreement.
Gove is certainly not short of upcoming opportunities to turn such ambitious words into solid action. The 25 year plan, the EU Withdrawal Bill and international UN summits are all chances to do so over the next year. Likewise, we will need to start seeing the plans for the world-leading institutions he spoke so passionately about today. Not least because, as Gove said, we have to ensure the powerful are held to account.
The Greener UK coalition has already started to outline how the UK government is doing on the full range of environmental policy risks which arise from Brexit. And we’ll be here throughout the process of exiting the EU, pointing out the opportunities to deliver the Green Brexit the secretary of state promised today. In this ‘unfrozen moment’, we’re not quite yet ready to let it go.
[Image: Landscape, courtesy of Scott Wylie from Flickr Creative Commons]