Michael Gove mounted a strong defence of the government's not quite state of climate emergency - but the contradictions at the heart of the Conservative's climate policy remain
Michael Gove is deservedly renowned as one of Parliament's more eloquent performers, but even he struggled to spin the argument that we face a climate emergency, but that does not necessarily mean we should declare a climate emergency.
That is not to say he didn't give it a right good go. Responding for the government in Labour's debate on whether parliament should declare a climate emergency and embrace a new net zero emission target he began by unequivocally declaring that it "is an emergency, it is a crisis, it is a threat". And then he equivocated.
Challenged later on why the government simply did not get on with it and formally declare a climate emergency, Gove reverted to the official party line, arguing that the challenge of climate change was not about whether you declare an emergency, but whether you act.
Aided by the discursive structure of parliamentary debates that does not allow cross-questioning (apparently so as to allow more MPs to ask ever more tangential questions about their pet peeves - chalk streams, bees, and peatlands were to the fore this afternoon), Gove was never really pushed on why then the government's action to date was not in line with the UK's medium term emissions targets. He was never asked to explain how declaring an emergency would supposedly preclude greater climate action, rather than catalysing it, which is, of course, the whole point of declaring said emergency.
Labour's Mary Creagh got closest, asking if the Environment Secretary was worried the UK was on track to miss its carbon targets and if he agreed that the upcoming spending review should be in line with net zero goals. Where he had previously been expansive in his responses, Gove opted for brevity. "Sounds good to me," he said. The question as to whether Liz Truss and Philip Hammond would agree that it is a good idea was left unasked.
What else? We got a cookie cutter paean to free markets and a predictably by the numbers attack on Venezuelan socialism. A series of attacks on Labour's record of failing to call climate-related debates in the midst of a plea for cross party unity and an end to partisan points scoring. Gove's brass neck is in perfect working order, even if his government's Brexit strategy is not. We even got a hard-hitting and heartfelt peroration, reminding the House of Britain's historic responsibilities as part of an attempt to channel 1914, 1939, and all that. "We have led in the past in defence of freedom," Gove declared. "We can lead now in defence of the planet."
Most significantly, Gove welcomed business support for a stronger Environment Bill and Labour's support for a net zero by 2050 target, hinting more clearly than ever before that if the Environment Secretary had his way the government's Green Brexit plans would be far more robust and a net zero target would be on the statute book within months. Somewhat bizarrely he even attempted to argue that in instructing the CCC last autumn to review a net zero target the government had signaled its support for such a goal before those bandwagon jumping jonny-come-latelys from Labour had said they would actually adopt one.
The problem is that for all Gove's apparent enthusiasm the government's official line remains that it will respond to the CCC in due course. A climate emergency remains undeclared. Gove and other ministers on the government's green wing are locked in the surreal position of accepting we are facing a climate emergency while refusing to declare one. They say they support a net zero target, are seeking credit for progress towards a net zero goal, but are also delaying the fast tracked development of a credible net zero strategy.
The genuine desire to respond to a global emergency has to play second fiddle to the desire not to antagonise colleagues who are already furious at the failure to deliver Brexit and continue to harbour dreams of a deregulatory nirvana where climate change, if it really exists, is solved entirely through the glory of the free market. For reasons of tribal loyalty and Whitehall process an emergency is denied an emergency response.
Gove gave it a good shot, but ultimately it is a political knot that would defy even the most talented parliamentarian.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing, available for free to BusinessGreen subscribers.
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