Rebecca Newson is head of politics at Greenpeace.
If speeches, newspaper articles and tweets alone were enough to define a political legacy, Michael Gove would have already carved out his niche as one of the most successful environment secretaries in British political history. Since arriving at Defra, Gove has stunned allies and foes alike with a series of high-profile announcements and ambitious statements of support for environmental protection.
But beneath the lush canopy of green words and promises, is anything actually taking root? The answer to this question is crucial to judge whether government action can match the scale of the global environmental crisis we face.
Wildlife and biodiversity extinction levels are devastatingly high, with Britain’s populations of butterflies, birds and wildflowers all in poor shape. Illegal roadside air pollution levels are stunting children’s lung growth and triggering strokes and heart disease in older people. And a rubbish truck of plastic waste is entering the world’s oceans every minute. Given the magnitude of the problem, we need an Environment Secretary with unrelenting resolve to tackle the root causes of these issues and truly deliver on the Conservative manifesto promise to be “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.”
So let’s take a more forensic look at progress beneath the headlines, starting with efforts to tackle ocean plastic pollution. The Government’s ban on microbeads in some cosmetic products was a small but crucial step forward. It kick-started a wider debate about more ambitious action on an issue which the Environment Secretary himself said left him feeling haunted. We have been told to expect more, including a ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and coffee stirrers; a deposit return scheme for drinks containers; and a more fundamental overhaul of our waste system so producers take more responsibility for the environmental impact of their products.
All of these things, in principle, would be great. However, we are still waiting for the detail. For example, we are likely to be waiting at least 15 months until we even see a draft of the Waste and Resources Strategy. And it’s not yet clear whether the much-trailed deposit return scheme for drinks containers will cover items of all sizes and sold from all retailers – a crucial detail if we are to put a stop to the 15 million plastic bottles that don’t get recycled in the UK each day.
Similarly, we were told in the 25-year Environment Plan that the Government is “working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042.” But it is unclear what ‘avoidable’ really means, and why the public has to wait nearly a quarter of a century to reach that goal. Much faster change is clearly possible – as shown by retailers like Iceland, who have pledged to eliminate all single-use plastic from their own-label products by the end of 2023.
With air pollution, the state of play is much more concerning. The best bits of the Government’s draft Clean Air Strategy last month were the commitments to introduce new primary legislation to enshrine high air quality standards in law post-Brexit, and the proposal to adopt World Health Organisation guidelines on particulates, which would be more ambitious than the current EU goal. These are vital steps forward.
Meanwhile, though, people in towns and cities across the UK are still living with illegal levels of toxic NO2 at the roadside – mainly caused by polluting diesel vehicles. Despite having being dragged to court multiple times over their failure to tackle this problem, the Government is still shying away from the most effective solutions. And yet it was Defra’s own technical report last May which concluded that Clean Air Zones that charge the dirtiest vehicles to enter into 17 urban centres across England would “have the greatest impact” and be the lowest-cost option for delivering legal compliance in the quickest possible time. This should be considered alongside the health costs to individuals and society of the ongoing crisis – estimated at more than £20 billion annually.
So, rather than passing the buck to under-resourced local authorities, Gove should follow his department’s own advice and mandate Clean Air Zones immediately. This should be accompanied by a well-resourced scrappage scheme for owners of older vehicles living in those areas, so they are not unfairly penalised for having bought diesel in good faith, and have support to transition to cleaner alternatives – including public transport, walking, cycling and electric vehicles. The majority of Conservative voters support the introduction of more low emission zones, and Conservatives are generally more supportive of this than voters from other parties.
The other side of the air pollution coin is the need to raise ambition on electric vehicles, which has crucial economic and climate benefits too. The government has set a target of 2040 for banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans, but other countries like China and Norway, and even car companies from Nissan to Fiat Chrysler and Volvo have opted for a much faster route. The forthcoming Road to Zero strategy and Zero Emission Vehicle Summit, hosted by Theresa May in September, are great opportunities for the UK government to power ahead in the race for clean transport.
Finally, when it comes to protecting and enhancing Britain’s natural environment, it’s a mixed picture. Strong points include the potential for Gove to expand the number of national parks in England, and the proposal to redirect £150 million of agricultural subsidies by 2022 towards delivering public goods – including schemes to enhance wildlife, make rivers healthier and water cleaner. While arguably a low-hanging fruit, it was also good to see Gove follow scientific evidence about the risks posed by neonicotinoids and agree last November to back the European Commission’s proposed restrictions.
Yet a huge amount still hangs in the balance. On sustainable agriculture, the subsidy regime post-2022 is still unclear – both in terms of the amount of money available, and whether environmental and social benefits will be prioritised. The UK’s exit from the EU’s much-criticised Common Agricultural Policy provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to introduce a new, world leading land use policy for nature in harmony with agriculture. We need the government to seize it with both hands.
The other dark cloud over the horizon relates to environmental governance. Gove’s recent ‘Green Brexit’ consultation was deeply disappointing with its proposed a new environmental watchdog with no powers to initiate legal action. To hold true to his promise of “a new, world-leading” watchdog to “hold the powerful to account,” the enforcement body needs to have legal powers to enforce the law and allow citizens and organisations to initiate complaints. Over 115,000 members of the public have signed a Greenpeace petition in less than a month demanding this solution. We hope this is rectified urgently through the EU Withdrawal Bill, and in the Government’s response to the consultation later this year.
In conclusion, Gove’s combination of strong words and a few strong first steps on the environmental brief have raised this issue up the agenda significantly – which is no small feat. Through a compelling vision rooted in the values of responsibility, tackling vested interests and dislike of waste, Conservative voters and the public at large have been reminded that they too have a stake in the debate about our environment’s future. After all, there’s nothing conservative about dumping environmental problems on the next generation. But truly substantive commitments are yet to come in many vital areas, despite widespread demand for action.
Even if, as some pundits say, this green turn was just a shrewd political calculation to re-engage younger voters and allay fears about Brexit, surely the same formula should also contemplate the astronomical political price of betraying those hopes. There is only so much time before the public’s patience will wear thin, so real results are needed – and soon. Until then, we’ll be holding our breath.