In what could be his last days as environment secretary, Michael Gove has delivered an agenda setting speech in which he lamented the catastrophic loss of biodiversity across the globe and at home, highlighting that the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world. He drew attention to the many other environmental threats we face, including the scourge of plastic pollution, toxic air and threats to water quality. Michael Gove’s self-confessed conversion from ‘shy green’ to ‘full-throated environmentalist’ is now complete.
Mr Gove clearly shares the sense of urgency that inspired over 12,000 people to come to Westminster on 26 June to urge their MP to take action as part of the largest ever environmental lobby of Parliament. He said the need to act was imperative, borne out of a moral, political and economic obligation.
These welcome commitments must be embraced by new ministers
Much of the speech was fledgling government policy, rather than fully formed, but it sets an inspiring direction of travel for the incoming occupants of ministerial office, and it is a visible and public statement of intent which will be difficult to disagree with, especially given the massive public support for strong environmental action. It has already attracted support from the Conservative backbenches.
Of course, there is more work to do to ensure that these welcome commitments embrace the full detail of what is needed to address the environmental crisis and deliver the vision of a pioneering green governance system. For example, the independence of the new environmental watchdog is moving in a positive direction but is still not at the level of autonomy needed to provide effective accountability. And we await detail on exactly how key principles of precaution and polluter pays will be embedded in our legal frameworks and how government will set, and be held to account on delivering, legally binding targets to address environmental decline.
At the end of last week, 43 organisations wrote to the leadership candidates for the Conservatives and Lib Dems urging them to prioritise the climate and environmental emergency and commit to ramping up policies and investment.
The Lib Dems, who have the potential to be kingmaker in any new parliamentary make-up, have made their intentions clear. Both leadership candidates have embraced the environmental agenda and pledged to set the UK on the path to nature’s recovery, reduce carbon emissions and establish a truly green economy (see these tweets from Ed Davey and Jo Swinson).
We are yet to hear from Boris Johnson. Jeremy Hunt has replied in broad terms, committing to a Clean Air Act and promising to engage with the sector if he is elected as the new leader. A good start, but more specificity would be welcome, especially on the need for new laws to enable nature’s recovery and provide robust oversight and accountability of current and successive governments’ environmental track record.
Three areas where firmer action is needed
Warm words alone do not make good laws. While Defra’s legislative programme is being unveiled, the Environment Bill is yet to be published and the timetable for its journey through parliament remains unclear. Time is running out for nature and new laws are needed now.
Action across the UK remains discordant, with yesterday’s announcement from the Welsh Government that it will not be including proposals to address the environmental governance gap in its forthcoming legislative programme, providing no clarity on when new laws will be introduced. A similar level of uncertainty exists in Scotland, despite over 22,000 people recently demanding an Environment Act. The continued absence of a Northern Ireland government hampers the progress of new legislation.
While the secretary of state’s ambition and commitment is both undeniable and commendable, it has to be seen in the wider context set by Brexit and our changing politics. The uncertainty of a no deal Brexit, and a possible lurch towards a weakening of regulatory standards that a trade deal with the US could bring, continue to cast a dark shadow over the positive statements from Michael Gove and the agenda that his department is promoting. The sooner the prime ministerial candidates can extricate themselves from this race to the bottom the better. A good first step would be for them to respond with clear, unambiguous and ambitious pledges to tackle the twin challenges of environmental decline and climate change.