Belfast Telegraph

Tories must not be allowed to endanger the environment

By Michael McCarthy

Worries are already being expressed about how the incoming Conservative Government might perform as a steward of the environment, so let us look at some of the new administration's options and possible moves - especially now that there are no Lib Dem hands to restrain them.

For discussion purposes, "the environment" can be divided into how the Cameron administration deals with climate change and then with the care of the natural world, both issues for the first time in the hands of women - Amber Rudd newly at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and Liz Truss reappointed at the Department for Environment.

The overwhelming issue in Ms Rudd's in-tray is the UN climate conference in Paris in December, where the world may have its last chance to cut a deal to tackle global warming.

Expect no major change of policy here. Britain's position is already set in European stone, as last October the 28 EU member states agreed a common position in advance of the conference to cut their carbon admissions by at least 40% on 1990 levels by 2030.

So, in spite of the fact that some Cabinet members may be climate-sceptic, Ms Rudd could not resile from this position even if she wanted to (which does not seem to be the case). The worry is more about how this target is achieved, as many Tories are hostile to renewable energy, especially those forms of it which they see as blighting rural landscapes such as onshore wind and solar farms. The Government will cut subsidies to them.

The threat to the defence of the natural world may be more serious. The Conservative manifesto promised to maintain our home-grown protected areas, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, but it said nothing about the strongest nature protection of all - the EU's birds, habitats and water directives.

George Osborne attempted to have these watered down and another such attempt may well be made, not least as the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is currently attempting to do so himself.

Mr Osborne was rebuffed by the Environment Secretary at the time, Caroline Spelman. Will Ms Truss show the same steel? Perhaps.

But, while more amenable than her immediate predecessor, the green-hating Owen Paterson, she will certainly be called on to implement massive spending cuts in Defra itself, which may lead to the abolition of the Government's wildlife watchdog, Natural England, as a separate entity.

It is going to take a little longer to find out who might come to the environment's defence. They will be the members of the House of Commons select committees - those small bodies of MPs, usually about 15-strong, who scrutinise and hold to account the performance of individual departments. They will be appointed, through negotiations between the party whips, with the chairs elected by MPs over the next few weeks.

So, by mid-summer, there will be an Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and there will be a Defra Select Committee - but the key one will be the Environmental Audit Committee.

The performance of the EAC in the last parliament was terrific. It issued 45 reports, staying the Government's hand on a number of issues, from fracking to pesticides.

Its forceful chair, the Labour MP Joan Walley, has, alas, retired; but many will hope for the reappointment to it of the two most environmentally minded MPs in the House, the Tory (but in effect, independent) Zac Goldsmith and the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, who is a symbol of what many people want from politics.

Belfast Telegraph


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