The next Prime Minister’s ‘single greatest responsibility’ will be addressing the climate and environment emergency, Environment Secretary warns
Action from government to tackle the climate emergency has to date not been good enough, Michael Gove has conceded, as the Environment Secretary claimed he felt greater affinity on the issue with Greta Thunberg than “many of the people I sit alongside in the House of Commons”.
Speaking before an audience of green campaigners, policy makers, and business figures last night at an event hosted by think tank Green Alliance, Gove called on the next Prime Minister to take strong, urgent action to address the climate emergency.
He compared the ideals of young people in the 1960s and the wider civil rights movement to School Strikes for Climate activists and Extinction Rebellion protestors, who he credited with helping to turn climate change into a mainstream political issue over the past year.
Environmental justice, Gove said, was “inspiring young people to raise their voices, and to reproach my generation, for not having done enough”.
“It’s uncomfortable sometimes to hear a 16-year-old like Greta Thunberg speak more sense on the need to act in order to deal with the climate emergency than many of the people who I sit alongside in the House of Commons,” Gove added.
He went on to stress that while “there are aspects” of what Extinction Rebellion say which he did not agree with, he understood the concern over climate action that drives the protestors.
“It’s tough, because at the heart of what they’re doing is saying: ‘You haven’t done enough. You’ve been in power. You’ve had influence. You told us that you were going to discharge your responsibilities in the public interest. But it’s just not good enough yet,'” Gove said. “And I have to confess that it hasn’t been.”
Heaping pressure on the next government, of which it is not yet known whether Gove will be a member, the Environment Secretary said that over the past two years there had been a significant rise in public expectation “that politicians will at last live up to their responsibilities on the environment”.
“The evidence is there in accumulating examples, with force that nobody can deny, and in a way that requires us to take action,” he said. “If we don’t act now, the situation in every respect only get worse.”
With the UK having just enshrined a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2050 in law, the next government is under significant pressure to quickly set out a policy platform for how it intends to meet the goal, including in difficult areas such as home heating, carbon capture and storage, and personal choices over diets and flying.
Last night’s comments follow a major set-piece speech from the Environment Secretary earlier this week, in which he set out a wide-ranging series of policy plans for the next year including proposals to strengthen post-Brexit environmental governance and introduce new waste measures and air quality rules.
Speaking last night, Gove said he was “under few illusions about how big a change we need to make”, acknowledging calls to eat less meat, fly less and plant more trees. And he compared the required transformation of the economy and society with that achieved during and immediately after World War Two.
“So there are challenges aplenty,” he said. “I don’t know, in a week’s time, who will be your Secretary of State, but the one thing that I do know is that whoever your Prime Minister is, I will be joining you in making sure they recognise that their single greatest responsibility – of course we must secure a good Brexit deal, and of course yes we must ensure that social justice is achieved more effectively – but the single greatest challenge that we face in the next 18 months is making sure that the climate and environment emergency… is addressed with the force, passion, and determination that it deserves.”
Gove’s comments came as further evidence emerged detailing the collapse in the installation rate for domestic energy efficiency upgrades overseen by the government over the past five years.
A report released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) yesterday reveals the number of energy efficiency upgrades to households – including measures such loft insulation or boiler improvements – has fallen by a dramatic 85 per cent since 2014.
Around 10,000 home retrofit upgrades were recorded each month on average in the UK during the first six months of this year, compared to the monthly average of 65,000 during the same period in 2014, the data shows. During the first half of both 2015 and 2016, meanwhile, the average monthly number of installations was around 30,000.
The current rate of installations is therefore far behind the 1.2 million homes needing upgrades each year to reach government targets.
The government has stressed that its ambition is for all homes to reach an energy efficiency EPC rating of Band C by 2035, and it recently announced a £5m fund to explore innovative way of financing energy efficiency upgrades, such as through green mortgages.
But Ed Matthew, associate director at climate think tank E3G, stressed that major public investment in cutting energy waste was “more than affordable”.
“The government has a choice. They either prioritise infrastructure spending on high carbon projects or they filter this spending through the lens of net-zero,” he said. “And that means prioritising infrastructure spending on helping us all to de-carbonise our homes.”
The new data follows a damning report on the government’s energy efficiency record just last week from the BEIS select committee of MPs, which warned the UK “stands no chance” of slashing greenhouse gas emissions in line with its recently adopted net zero by 2050 target unless drastic action is taken to improve the energy productivity of homes and buildings.
That report found the rate of energy efficiency installations in UK homes has plummeted by 95 per cent since 2012, leading BEIS committee chair Rachel Reeves to accuse minister of “continuing to sit on their hands” on the issue.
BEIS was considering a request for comment at the time of going to press.
Recent speculation suggested new proposals to improve domestic energy efficiency were likely to be included in an Energy White Paper that was reportedly slated to launch this week. But a late row between BEIS and the Treasury over whether key decisions on the plans should be left to the next Prime Minister appear to have delayed the launch of plans, which also included measures to mobilise investment in new nuclear and carbon capture projects.
Speaking to the BEIS committee earlier this week, Acting Energy and Clean Growth Minister Chris Skidmore would only say the white paper is expected to be published this summer.