Today marks the six-month anniversary of Michael Gove’s appointment as Environment Secretary. In the past, Gove had shown a fairly poor voting record on environmental issues, voting against a ban on “unconventional petroleum exploitation” and alongside that voted against a motion explicitly requiring environmental permits for natural gas fracking operations. The MP also had no previous experience in agricultural or environmental roles, previous roles being Justice and Education secretary, so his promotion sparked outcry from many. Ed Davey, the former Environment secretary, described the appointment as ‘an act of environmental vandalism’, and said it would be ‘like putting a wolf in charge of the chicken coop’.
The looming prospect of Brexit makes for uncertain times in the realm of UK environmental policy, and so in many ways Gove’s tenure takes place at a truly pivotal moment. So, what has he achieved since June?
To the surprise of some, Gove has achieved a reasonable amount already. In July, Defra took a step to tackle the problem of plastics in our oceans by announcing a ban on microbeads, small plastic objects that are easily swallowed by marine life. In later months, Gove unveiled the Government’s plan to combat air pollution in cities, and the UK committed to reducing HFC emissions, a notable greenhouse gas, by 85% by 2036. CCTV was made mandatory in all slaughterhouses, and the maximum sentence for animal cruelty was increased from six months to five years. He also announced a ban on ivory sales, and introduced a number of funds and subsidies to boost innovation and productivity in the agricultural and environmental sector.
However, campaigners are quick to point out that some of these policies do not go far enough, with particular concern expressed around the government’s measures to combat air pollution in cities. Although the plan confirmed a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, it stopped short of enforcing clean air zones that might prevent polluting cars from entering city centres, and failed to introduce a diesel scrappage scheme to incentivise drivers to switch to cleaner cars.
Air pollution is estimated to contribute to the deaths of 40,000 people a year in the UK, and is a problem that urgently needs addressing. ClientEarth, an environmental law NGO, described the plan as ‘lacking in urgency’, and said that it ‘kicked the can down the road again’ by setting an unambitious goal for 2040 when many regions in the UK already have illegal levels of air pollution.
In tandem with these new policy announcements, Gove has also been keen to outline his vision for a ‘Green Brexit’, where ‘environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced’. He has expressed a desire to increase restrictions on bee-harming pesticides, neonicotinoids, and met with industry leaders a number of times to discuss the future of farming and fishing in the UK. He also withdrew from the London Fisheries Convention, which permits five EU countries to fish in UK waters. It was seen as a predictable step in the Brexit negotiations, with the Government set to unveil a Fisheries Bill in the future. However, the timing of the announcement was viewed as an ‘aggressive negotiating tactic’ by ClientEarth. In such an uncertain climate, it is crucial that UK ecosystems are not used as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations.
Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see whether the government introduces more ambitious measures to tackle pollution, agricultural concerns and other environmental issues. A crucial question remains; what shape will the first post-Brexit environmental bills take? Michael Gove has done more than a lot of people thought he would, but has a lot more to do if he is to turn his often strong words into action.