Michael Gove’s Green Brexit speech

This morning Michael Gove gave his first keynote speech as Environment Secretary. Around 100 people attended the speech at WWF-UK’s headquarters in Woking. Junior Minister Therese Coffey was also in attendance.

The speech was very positive and Mr Gove said many things that we applaud.

Opportunities and New Possibilities

Mr Gove said that he is “an environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart” and that he “deeply regret[s] President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.” He added that “we should not aim simply to halt or slow the deterioration of our environment. We must raise our ambitions so we seek to restore nature and reverse decline.” In the Q&A session he said that the UK must not drop environmental standards or protections in seeking a trade deal with, for example, the USA.

We went on to say that “we now have an historic opportunity to review our policies on agriculture, on land use, on biodiversity, on woodlands, marine conservation, fisheries, pesticide licensing, chemical regulation, animal welfare, habitat management, waste, water purity, air quality and so much more. Leaving the European Union means leaving the Common Agricultural Policy, leaving the Common Fisheries Policy, and taking back control of environmental policy. And in this unfrozen moment new possibilities occur.

No Intention to Weaken Environmental Protections

He said that the EU has been a force for good for the environment, but that there are things we can do better. Pleasingly, he said: “I have no intention of weakening the environmental protections that we have put in place while in the European Union.

Coming back to the deficiencies of the EU with regards to the environment, he said that “the EU has not always been a force for good environmentally” and that the UK “is more than capable of bringing in our own strong legislation to protect the environment, independent of the EU.”

In addressing the weaknesses of the EU, he said that “the two areas where the EU has most clearly failed to achieve its stated environmental goals are the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.”


“The Common Agricultural Policy rewards size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment. It also encourages patterns of land use which are wasteful of natural resources and often intrinsically poor value rather than encouraging imaginative and environmentally enriching alternatives.”

“This Government has pledged that when we leave the EU we will match the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in support from the CAP until 2022. And I want to ensure that we go on generously supporting farmers for many more years to come. But that support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.”

Despite this indication of a change of policy, Mr Gove also said that it is his “job to support them to grow, produce and sell more” and that “while continued support is critically important, so is reform.”


Pleasingly, Mr Gove said that “fisheries management should always be guided by science – by a hard-headed assessment of which species and stocks can be fished and which must be protected if their numbers are not to dip below sustainable levels.“

He added that, because of their impact on the marine environment, the government will be introducing legislation to ban plastic microbeads in personal care products later this year.

And that “by completing the Blue Belt of marine protected areas around the UK and working with our Overseas Territories we hope to create the world’s largest marine sanctuaries, we hope to deliver over 4 million square kilometres of protected maritime areas by 2020.“

Science and Evidence

On using science and evidence, he said that “while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science. There will, of course, always be a need to make judgements about the best method of achieving environmental goals, in ways which improve rather than up-end people’s lives. But it is only by adherence to scientific method, through recognising the vital importance of testing and re-testing hypotheses in the face of new evidence and through scrupulous adherence to empirical reasoning, that we can be certain our policies are the best contemporary answer to the eternal questions of how we live well and honour the world we have inherited and must pass on enhanced to our children.”

He added that “outside the European Union there is scope for Britain not just to set the very highest standards in marine conservation, but also to be a global leader in environmental policy across the board. Informed by rigorous scientific analysis, we can develop global gold standard policies on pesticides and chemicals, habitat management and biodiversity, animal welfare and biosecurity, soil protection and river management and indeed in many other areas.”

Returning to the UK situation, he added that “we are fortunate to have in[Defra] a team of scientists, economists, policy specialists and analysts second to none. It’s a privilege to be working in a department where the quality of analysis and advice, as well as the commitment to rigorous science, is so impressive.

New Institutions

Despite this being ruled out by others in Government, Mr Gove said that “as we prepare to leave the EU we must give thought to how we can create new institutions to demonstrate environmental leadership and even greater ambition. Not least because we have to ensure that the powerful are held to account and progress towards meeting our environmental goals is fairly measured.”

“And I mention that because I know that inside the EU, the European Commission and the ECJ have provided enforcement mechanisms and understandably, some are asking what could or should replace them. My view is that we have an opportunity, outside the EU, to design potentially more effective, more rigorous and more responsive institutions, new means of holding individuals and organisations to account for environmental outcomes.”

He said that “if we take these opportunities to create these new institutions, we cannot just help protect our precious environmental assets, we can also create an economic asset for the country.” He argued that “if we establish ourselves as the home of the highest environmental standards, the most rigorous science and the most ambitious institutions then the world will look to us for environmental innovation and leadership.”

Post-Brexit monitoring and enforcement is one of CIEEM’s major concerns with the Repeal Bill and we are pleased to see Mr Gove receptive to the benefits of new institution(s) to take up this role.

Defra’s 25-Year Plan for the Environment

Mr Gove said that he understood the frustrations with the delays to publishing Defra’s 25-Year Environment Plan, but saying that he wants to make sure the plan is as ambitious as possible. He said that critical to its success will be adopting as rigorous a methodology as possible to setting goals and reporting success or failure. He added that he has “written to Professor Dieter Helm, the Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, to ask his Committee to draw up advice on what our Plan should aim to achieve and how it should seek to do so.”

Adding that the Natural Capital Committee has shown global leadership in establishing new ways of valuing our environment, he said that “I want to ensure that we use the insights of natural capital thinking and accounting to develop an approach which will help guide us in every area from reforming support for agriculture to considering how we reform planning policy.” The Natural Capital Committee has agreed to provide its advice in September. Mr Gove added in the Q&A session that he hopes the 25-Year Plan will be published late 2017 or early 2018.

Climate Change

Mr Gove said that he will be publishing the second National Adaptation Programme in 2018. This will be a comprehensive plan of action to improve our resilience to climate change.

Concluding Remarks

Mr Gove concluded by saying that he has “set out what I believe is a deliberately ambitious agenda today because I believe the times demand it. Leaving the EU gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform how we manage agriculture and fisheries, and therefore how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas. And we can recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet. In short, it means a Green Brexit. When we speak as a Government of Global Britain it is not just as a leader in security or an advocate for freer trade that we should conceive of our global role but also a champion of sustainable development, an advocate for global social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green, growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it. That is my department’s driving ambition – and it should be central in the next five years to our national mission.”

CIEEM’s Further Thoughts and Actions

CIEEM is thoroughly pleased with the ambition proposed by Mr Gove, particularly with regards to not weakening EU protections, reforming agricultural subsidies so that public money pays for public benefits, emphasising the importance of science and evidence-based policy-making, being open to the benefits of new institutions, and his ambition for Defra’s 25-Year Plan for the Environment.

There were however issues that were not addressed, including how environmental powers will be repatriated to the devolved administrations post-Brexit and how primary legislation in the form of a new Environment Act would safeguard environmental standards and protections from being weakened post-Brexit.

We will be following up the speech by writing to Mr Gove to offer our help, both individually and collectively with partners, with advice and suggestions on how to deliver his ambitions for the natural environment.

Mr Gove’s full speech has been published on the gov.uk website.

Read more about CIEEM’s Brexit activities.