The UK must play a leading role in tackling climate change and damage to the environment despite the focus on Brexit, Michael Gove has said.
In what may be his last speech as Environment Secretary, ahead of the outcome of the Tory leadership election next week, he pledged there would be a legally-binding commitment in the new Environment Bill that no part of the country exceeded World Health Organisation recommended limits on dangerous pollution known as particulate matter.
Mr Gove gave his backing to a “comprehensive” deposit return scheme to boost recycling of drinks containers.
He also said he wanted to see a new environmental watchdog with “teeth” after Brexit that could take the Government to court if it broke legal targets that would be enshrined in the Environment Bill to protect wildlife, water and air quality – and would also be able to take action on climate change.
In his speech, he warned time was running out to reverse the damage being done to the planet by human beings, with wildlife populations and forests in decline and temperatures rising.
He said: “These twin challenges of biodiversity and climate change are massive and urgent and interrelated. The action taken so far hasn’t been sufficient, but late as it may be, there is still time.”
He said the UK should play a leadership role as the world looks towards three major international summits in 2020 on the environment: the UN climate talks which the UK is bidding to host, a conference to set new targets to protect nature in Beijing and a summit to discuss a new oceans treaty.
“Climate change and biodiversity cannot be solved by a single nation alone, but determined action in the UK can help us provide the momentum to help persuade the world to work together to change the way we operate to safeguard the planet,” he said.
Quizzed on how the UK could provide leadership to secure deals on these issues when it was focused on Brexit, Mr Gove said: “It’s at times of fundamental change that we need to step up and show a higher level of ambition.
“While it is right and important that we concentrate on making sure we have a good, managed and orderly exit from the European Union, it is also critically important we show that this Government is about more than Brexit, it’s about making sure that Britain retains a leading role in the world and there is no purview we are better-placed to do that than with respect to the environment.”
Mr Gove sought to reassure the audience, which included environmental and conservation leaders, that both candidates to be the next prime minister “care deeply about the environment”.
He outlined action the UK had already taken, including expanding marine protected areas, introducing a new legal target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, developing plans to pay farmers for delivering on the environment after Brexit and reintroducing extinct species.
“But to really capitalise on this moment, this unfrozen moment, we must go further, and later this year we plan to integrate and elevate our new environmental ambitions into law,” he said.
“It will be the new prime minister who will have the ultimate decision on the content of the Environment Bill. But the party has collectively agreed it will be the flagship measure of the next Queen’s speech.
“I’m greatly encouraged that both candidates to be our next prime minister have made clear they will not dilute our environmental ambitions, indeed they would seek to raise them.”
In questions after the speech, he refused to be drawn on which of the two candidates he supported and said he had set out his hopes for the policies that would be pursued whoever had his job in the future.
Mr Gove said he would be happy to serve in government, whoever is the next prime minister, but said he understood if they sent him to the back benches.
His speech was welcomed by environmental campaigners, but there were concerns that a no-deal Brexit would undermine efforts to tackle environmental problems.
Amy Mount from the Greener UK coalition said: “Michael Gove has thrown down the gauntlet to the next prime minister, rightly emphasising that legally binding targets and a strong independent watchdog are necessary if we are to address the environmental crisis.
“Yet the crucial decisions will still be made by Theresa May’s successor, and all these great proposals could be scuppered with a disruptive no-deal Brexit or undermined by a hasty low-standards trade deal with the United States.”
Maddy Haughton-Boakes, litter campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said: “We welcome Michael Gove’s support for an ‘all-in’ deposit return system that would halt the environmental damage caused by the tens of billions of plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans consumed every year in the UK.
“This is the strongest signal yet of the Government’s intention to transform the way that we deal with the waste created by drinks containers, preventing them from choking our countryside, streets, rivers and oceans.”
Sam Chetan-Welsh, political adviser for Greenpeace UK, said Mr Gove’s call for urgency and UK leadership was “spot on”.
“By backing an all-inclusive deposit return scheme for bottles and cans, and pledging to force big business to finally foot the bill for the masses of plastic rubbish they create, Gove’s pledges give the next government a good place to start.
“But tangible commitments on climate were notably absent. The next government must speed up the ban on petrol and diesel vehicles, triple renewable power over the next decade, end fracking and Heathrow’s third runway, and boost investment in insulating our homes.”