Is our new government taking a step backwards on climate change, or is it moving forward?
At Cabinet level, Boris Johnson’s new government is a step backwards for environmentalists. Michael Gove, one of the most successful administrators in Theresa May’s government, has been moved from the crucial Environment and Rural Affairs brief to a role overseeing no deal preparations at the Cabinet Office. He is replaced by Theresa Villiers, whose stints as a junior minister at Transport and as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are near-universally derided.
At the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark is out, replaced by Andrea Leadsom, who won a lot of respect across the political divide, particularly among parliamentary staffers, for taking abuse at Westminster seriously and a willingness to take on her own party as Leader of the House. She was the first sitting Cabinet minister to call for the government to declare a climate emergency, but her ability to run a big department is unproven.
Replacing Claire Perry, whose tenure was more mixed – she put serious work into phasing out coal but was a vocal defender of fracking and tended to shy away from advocating anything that might have been unpopular or divisive in the role – is Kwasi Kwarteng. It’s a big moment for the energy brief. Thus far, the present government has benefited from being in post at the right time to take credit for decisions taken by Ed Miliband and then Ed Davey under the last Labour government and then the Liberal-Conservative coalition. Their big challenge is to keep up the momentum. The potential upside for environmentalists is that Kwarteng is politically close to Johnson and that the biggest forward strides on the environment have tended to come when Downing Street and the relevant minister were politically close, whether that be Gordon Brown and Miliband or the unique political circumstances of the coalition.
So a mixed but ultimately fairly depressing picture at Cabinet level. But at a junior ministerial level the impression is brighter and means there are reasons to hope the new government will be as green if not greener than the last one. The eyecatching appointment is Zac Goldsmith, who will serve as a junior minister in both Defra and the Department for International Development.
Although Goldsmith’s political reputation has never recovered from his infamous campaign for the London mayoralty, he has serious green credentials. He is a longterm environmentalist and pro-conservation campaigner, a committed opponent of Heathrow expansion, and called for an increase in the size of London’s congestion charge zone. He is a committed and vocal supporter of the international development budget and understands that it is only through a strong commitment to international aid that the developing world can experience an increase in living standards without relying on the carbon-intensive energy solutions that underpinned the same increases in the west.
At the Treasury, the new exchequer secretary Simon Clarke, was a vocal supporter of the 2050 zero carbon target and a vocal critic of Philip Hammond over the issue, which Hammond regarded as too economically costly.
So all in all, the hope that the new government might at least mothball the third runway and will keep up and even extend the good work of the last government looks a lot more likely now that the government has been completely reconfigured than it did when Villiers was brought in to replace Gove.