How bad is Britain’s environmental record?

Michael Gove, who led the Tories’ environment ministry during the last Tory-led government, thinks the current government is making huge strides on the environment. That may be more wishful thinking than reality. The beleaguered…

How bad is Britain’s environmental record?


Michael Gove, who led the Tories’ environment ministry during the last Tory-led government, thinks the current government is making huge strides on the environment. That may be more wishful thinking than reality.

The beleaguered Environment Secretary has delivered three major reports since coming into his new role in August. Two were just summary arguments, to justify the current government’s land, air and water policies, and one was a call for further actions.

His latest report, released late last week, sets out more detail in a new range of targets for reducing carbon emissions. He compares the UK with Denmark, France and Germany, which already have the best average annual carbon reduction rates in the G7 – 21.3%, 21.9% and 24.4%, respectively.

Michael Gove, deputy editor of The Economist, claims the current government is making huge strides on the environment

Gove goes so far as to argue that “in the last year, we have made a step change in the amount of carbon we have reduced across all three sectors”, including aviation emissions. He doesn’t mention that Britain has been the European Union’s “least ambitious” member state in hitting the reduction targets it has agreed to.

There are still some huge gaps. For example, the UK government did not meet its own target in reducing carbon intensity, from goods and services, for 2017-2020. There are no fewer than two months left in this parliament to close that gap, and the clear improvement in the air quality figures won’t plug it.

What Britain can take note of from the rest of the G7

The time for tinkering is over. The challenges that remain, such as air pollution, falling agricultural emissions and new approaches to tackling the problem of carbon emissions from mining and burning fossil fuels, are serious. But the UK must follow other countries that have a national environmental ministry.

The UK’s level of engagement with the environment is still low. Germany has a Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, France has the Ecology Ministry, and the Netherlands has the National Coordinator of Environment Affairs. Denmark has a ministry of the environment. The United States has a Department of the Interior.

Gove’s energy and climate change department has only an energy and climate change directorate, with a single role under a Department of Transport directorate.

The case for more ministers and clearer responsibility

The environment ministers of other G7 countries are generally there because the environment is too important to be left in the hands of just one man or woman. Environment ministers work closely with energy and climate change ministers. But the focus is often on enforcement and policy.

The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is yet to start operation, and the government does not even have a plan to evacuate people in the event of a nuclear accident.

The Scottish National party government in Edinburgh has a long-standing national environmental ministry, providing direct political responsibility for the protection of air, water and land.

The situation in the UK is getting worse. Many of the promises made by the last government to deliver a strong environmental agenda have fallen by the wayside. The election of a Tory government in May made matters much worse.

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