Environment Secretary says government commitment to improving environment means leaving 'the statute book in a better state than we inherited it'
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has acknowledged the government's green ambitions will need "legislative underpinning", giving his clearest indication yet new UK laws and standards may be on their way as part of an effort to protect and enhance the environment after Brexit.
Speaking at an event organised by think tank Prosperity UK yesterday, Gove would not be drawn on details of any specific legislation. But, he said he could "state clearly that if we are to honour our pledge to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it we must also leave the statute book in a better states than we inherited it".
And, he reiterated his promise that in both future trade deals the UK hopes to sign with non-EU nations after Brexit and any economic partnership with the EU, natural capital would protected, the natural world respected, and the "highest ethical and environmental standards" upheld.
The speech came as ClientEarth CEO James Thornton told the same event that environmental protection could and should be integrated throughout trade policy. "We can refuse to trade with countries that do not participate adequately in key international agreements, like the Paris Accord," he said, echoing comments from some EU officials that any future trade agreement with the US would rest on the country backing the climate deal.
Gove also hinted EU legal principles governing the environment - the 'polluter pays' principle and precautionary principle, for example - would also be maintained post-Brexit. "Not only will there be no abandonment of the environmental principles that we've adopted in the EU, but indeed we aim to strengthen environmental protection measures and to create new mechanisms to incentivise environmental improvement," he said.
The Environment Secretary's comments will be welcomed by green groups. However, they also suggest that cabinet disagreements could yet emerge over the government's green plans. Both Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Trade Secretary Liam Fox have previously hinted environmental standards could in fact be watered down after the UK leaves the EU.
But Gove said he wanted the UK to demonstrate "global leadership" on the environment, explaining that as a Conservative he believed in "careful husbanding of resources, both financial and environmental" and stressing that "we have to have truly sustainable economic growth".
In a wide ranging speech touching on air quality, waste, legal principles, farming subsidies, natural capital, fisheries, Defra's 25 Year Plan for the Environment, and even the environmental performance of China under Chairman Mao, Gove explained how Brexit could help unlock a new and more sustainable economic model.
In a rare admission for a government minister, he said economic growth has over many decades "been over-reliant on exploiting finite natural resources whose depletion inevitably leaves future generations poorer". Instead, he called for the UK to pursue a new economic model that puts nature and the environment at its heart.
"The truth, as governments have long understood, is that you cannot sustain economic growth if you erode the natural capital on which all human flourishing depends," he explained. "And, in parallel, sustainable economic growth will generate the income we all then can invest in future, further environmental enhancement."
He reserved particular enthusiasm for natural capital accounting as a means of measuring every natural asset in both financial and physical terms. But he also nodded to concerns about the approach, arguing it was "just one tool" for delivering environmental and economic gains and adding that not everything could be given an economic value.
Nevertheless, Gove said post-Brexit the government's aim would be to ensure it incentivised investment in "physical, human and above all natural capital".
Elsewhere, Gove praised the UK's burgeoning agritech sector as a focus for future economic exports and reiterated his commitment to "escaping" the EU's Common Agricultural Policy in favour of a new UK subsidy regime that pays farmers to protect the environment.
With the government having recently faced yet another High Court defeat at the hands of ClientEarth over its plans to tackle air pollution and yesterday faced criticism from four Parliamentary committee's over the issue, Gove conceded "we've been too slow to act on what is a major public health scandal".
He suggested the government would unveil a new Clean Air Strategy in the spring that would further restrict diesel use, protect urban centres from pollution and make changes to household heating, as well as reforming agriculture and industry "to ensure our air is properly breathable".
In addition, following government plans outlined in the Spring Budget this week to take further action on reducing single use plastic waste, Gove said he recognised the need to reform the existing producer responsibility scheme, which sees taxpayers foot the majority of the bill for recycling or disposing of waste.
"We need to impose appropriate costs on those whose products leave a heavier environmental footprint and we then need to use the money generated from that to invest in dramatically improved recycling facilities in this country," said Gove.
The Environment Secretary's speech received a relatively warm welcome from green campaigners, with his comments appearing to douse calls from arch-Brexiteers for a regulatory bonfire after the UK leaves the EU.
Amy Mount of the Greener UK coalition of environmental groups said that while further details on new policies and legislation still needed fleshing out, Gove's ambitions looked to be "heading in the right direction".
"It was a similar flavour to what we've come to expect from the Secretary of State - very positive commitment to high standards on the environment, which is pretty reassuring for people, but what we're hoping for now is more evidence of delivery on that rhetoric," Mount told BusinessGreen.
The next test, she said, would be Defra's promised consultation on a future green watchdog to oversee enforcement of environmental laws and further clarity on how EU legal principles will be enshrined into domestic laws.
"[Gove] gave probably the most significant hint yet of his hope for environmental legislation coming through to embed his environmental commitments, because a Green Brexit can only be green if it is better than what we had before," she added. "So we have to capture some of that ambition in legislation on the one hand domestically, but also in whatever agreement is truck with the EU because that international dimension is still going to be very important."
Since taking office last summer, Gove's words have helped ease widespread concerns of a potential degradation of green standards and principles after Brexit. But as ever - and with some of his more anti-regulation cabinet colleagues no doubt breathing down his neck - the devil will be in the details of any policy or legislations that emerge. With little over a year until the UK officially leaves the EU, there may not be long to wait before Britain's post-Brexit environmental strategy begins to take shape.
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