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23 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:06pm

After Greta Thunberg, all eyes are on Michael Gove

By Eleni Courea

Sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg got a standing ovation from around 40 MPs and more than 100 other guests packed inside a room in parliament today. She sat on a panel with Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Ed Miliband, Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, and Caroline Lucas, while climate change protesters continued their week-long demonstration on Parliament Square.

Thunberg warned that by 2030, the planet will have reached the “point of no return”, at which climate damage will be irreversible. She said that while the whole world faces the same challenge, the UK is “very special – not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting.”

It was a direct attack on UK climate policy. Thunberg said calculations that the UK has reduced its carbon emissions by 37 per cent since 1990 do not include emissions from aviation, shipping and those associated with imports and exports. She cited figures that instead, UK emissions have fallen by just 10 per cent in that period, averaging 0.4 per cent a year. In a final twist of the knife, she argued that was mostly down to a 2001 EU air quality directive that forced the government to shut down heavily polluting coal fire stations.

After Thunberg’s speech, all eyes were on Gove, and the bulk of questions directed at him. Why didn’t the government join other parties in meeting Thunberg this morning? Does Gove intend to reinstate the department for climate change? Will he reintroduce old Labour environment policies, dismantled by the Conservatives? Did he only wake up to the issue when the cameras were on him? Will he stop Heathrow expansion? Or revive the Swansea lagoon project?

It was remarkable how little time Gove spent defending the government’s record. Instead he was deferential and apologetic. He said Thunberg was “the voice of our conscience”, and that her words made him feel a “sense of responsibility and guilt”. He praised the work of Lucas, Miliband, and environmental commentator George Monbiot, and said: “I know I haven’t done enough, very few politicians have… the one thing that I would ask is that we keep the conversation going.”

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It was a markedly different tone to that struck by Claire Perry, the climate change minister, in response to an urgent question from Miliband in the chamber a little later. She said that “many of the messages we’re hearing ignore the progress that is being made and as such make people fearful for the future rather than hopeful”, and praised the UK’s actions on plastics, renewable energy and phasing out coal. It goes to show how there are positive things that the Tories can point to in their record on emissions and the environment, but Gove seems to have calculated that taking the government lines won’t have his desired effect. 

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An audience member at Thunberg’s event congratulated her for helping to put climate change above Brexit on the agenda. At that point, Gove may well have been thinking how much he has to gain from that publicity. It will mean that with his pronouncements, he’ll get centre stage at a time when senior Tories are openly jostling to succeed Theresa May. It won’t be long before we see what he’ll do with it.