It appears to be Green Week in Whitehall. Buoyed by Tuesday’s announcement that he may be planning curbs on plastic waste (as long as business groups don’t mind too much), Michael Gove this week revealed a new Environment Bill.
As always, he painted a beautiful picture of how he hopes to restore our pleasant land to health if we leave the EU. And, as always, his promises were backed up by precisely nothing.
On the surface – with climate-denying Trump in the Whitehouse and Amazon-bulldozing Bolsonaro elected in Brazil – we might appear lucky to have an Environment Secretary so keen to appear eco-friendly. But our Government practises green doublethink.
It’s certainly positive that ministers have published a draft Environment Bill. With the world’s top scientists warning we have 12 years to avoid climate catastrophe, and research showing a 60% drop in global wildlife populations over the last 40 years, we stand on the precipice of an unimaginable crisis.
The Government’s draft does acknowledge that – but its plans for action are built on sand. Without a firm foundation of laws and enforcement to keep ministers to their word, even the most ambitious plans are meaningless.
The Bill is littered with vague language – with the Government only needing to ‘have regard to’ core environmental values like the polluter pays and the precautionary principle. There’s also a giant get out of jail free card when ministers decide how those principles will be applied. Any activity related to public spending, national security or ‘any other matter’ specified by the Government will be excluded.
Yet these principles ensure those who profit from making our air toxic and our rivers filthy must pay for the damage they cause – and that government decisions are based on the latest science. They should be firm rules underpinning any environmental law, so their watered-down appearance here is worrying. I’ve no doubt ministers ‘have regard to’ climate science – but that doesn’t stop them shafting renewable energy or building new runways.
There is a distinct lack of legally-binding targets for restoring nature too. The Government knows our air is killing thousands, our soil is turning to dust, and iconic species like hedgehogs are on the brink of collapse – so you’d think they’d make rock-solid commitments to regenerate the natural world, backed by clear plans of action. After all, their 25 Year Plan for the environment set out relatively ambitious ideas earlier this year. But all this Bill would do is make the Government produce an unenforceable (and therefore ignorable) ‘environmental improvement plan’.
The draft does introduce a watchdog (a new Office of Environmental Protection) responsible for overseeing the Government’s activities – but even that would be under the thumb of Michael Gove’s department, which has a track record of slashing resources for environmental bodies. So instead of the independent defender of nature we need – in essence, a green version of the National Audit Office, with budgets set and key staff appointed by Parliament – we’ve been given a toothless lapdog whose independence and budget are at the whim of Ministers.
It’s never wise to trust a government to mark its own homework – but with Michael Gove in charge of our irreplaceable and already depleted natural world, tight laws and fierce enforcement are vital.
If we do leave the EU in 100 days, I fear our environment secretary will have polished his reputation with rhetoric, without delivering the change we need on the ground to prevent a cliff-edge in vital protections.
The last three months have seen the Government water down its already pale greenwash – hardly offering reassurance about what’s to come. On Monday – the day after the UN climate talks ended – ministers released a strategy to build new runways and carve out new flightpaths that would obliterate our carbon budgets. In October, the Chancellor’s Budget contained plans to grant fossil fuel companies an extra £3billion in tax breaks.
Days after the world’s top scientists issued their starkest warning yet that we must urgently shift to renewables, ministers launched a whole new fossil fuel industry by forcing fracking on communities in Lancashire. And on Tuesday, the Government announced that homes, businesses and schools who install solar panels from next year will no longer receive any payment for providing electricity to the grid.
Behind the Government’s green spin lies a track record of environmental destruction. It’s up to MPs to strengthen this Bill to force Michael Gove to keep his promises.
Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion