Zac Goldsmith: "Next year has to be a 'super year' for the environment, or frankly we're stuffed"
Having made a name for himself on the backbenches as a committed ecological campaigner, Zac Goldsmith now finds himself sitting around the Cabinet table. As Extinction Rebellion gathers around Westminster, does the minister for environment and international development have more in common with those on the streets than his government colleagues? He talks to Anoosh Chakelian
“I felt that, in order to be a minister, you effectively have to have a lobotomy and lose all sense of independence.”
Once a campaigning backbencher, Zac Goldsmith is reflecting on his new life in the government tent. Promoted by Boris Johnson in July, the erstwhile rebel on climate votes has attended cabinet since September as an environment and international development minister.
It was only three years ago, during his doomed attempt to beat Sadiq Khan to the London mayoralty, that the Tory MP for Richmond Park told the Guardian “I’m not suited to being a government minister.”
Now, he tells me, he’s changed his mind. “I’ve discovered that is not the case,” he says, re. the lobotomy.
We meet in the Thatcher Room on Portcullis House’s committee corridor in Parliament, filled with a horseshoe of seats and desks usually reserved for select committee hearings. Goldsmith sits on a green leather window seat and gazes out at the soggy road leading up to Parliament Square.
Once described as having a face “carved out of caramel by angels” by his new boss’s sister, Rachel Johnson, he looks more weary and rumpled than tall and angular today. He rubs his forehead and fiddles with his fingers nervously when speaking.
At 44, and a father of six children, his hair is now a metallic grey and he wears scuffed loafers, baggy dark trousers, plus a jacket with elbow patches he insists on keeping on for photos (“I always wear a jacket.”)
Awkwardly posing, he foils the photographer’s attempt to force him into some kind of Tory power pose – placing one foot gingerly in front of the other, he mutters “that’s about as far as it goes; I’m very conservative”.
That’s a statement a few of his colleagues might once have questioned. Since entering Parliament under David Cameron in 2010, he’s hassled the government.
While following the party line on austerity, economic and foreign policy, his zealous opposition to Heathrow expansion and campaign for recalling unsatisfactory MPs gave him a high profile.
Ministerial life must jar with these convictions. The badger cull, which Goldsmith opposed, is being extended this year, for example. His department has approved culling in 11 new areas, with 64,000 badgers expected to be killed this autumn.
“Badgers are not in my brief, actually,” he says, weakly. “Look, I, as a backbencher who’s on the record questioning the science of the badger cull, think the signs from the government are that they are taking the alternatives seriously. That’s why the Derbyshire cull was pulled at the last minute… it’s not my decision but it was the right decision, and I think that suggests strongly that the government is wanting to look very seriously at those alternatives, and I hope that’s the case.”
Goldsmith gushes about how impressed he is with Boris Johnson and this government’s attitude to environmental issues. His job’s elevation to cabinet level, he argues, is “a big signal of intent”.
“Obviously titles and things are a secondary or tertiary interest, but there’s no doubt that being able to sit around the cabinet gives me extra ability to push harder on the stuff that in many respects I’d been campaigning on as a teenager.”
As a child, Goldsmith would urge his neighbours to hand over their caged birds, which he cared for in the garden of his family’s estate in Ham, by Richmond Park. Thought to be one of the richest current MPs, he was born to the wealthy Goldsmith family, and went to Eton until he was expelled for cannabis in his room.
In his early twenties, he became editor of The Ecologist, a magazine founded by his uncle. He said then that “in 10 years’ time, I might be an eco-terrorist” during a 2000 interview. He claims not to remember this, but it’s clear the passion he had in his youth endures today.
“I am about as committed as you can be. I’ve spent my entire life campaigning on nature and the climate,” he says, gazing out of the window, where the road below is lined with barriers. Extinction Rebellion climate activists are in the midst of two weeks’ disruption in the capital. They gifted Goldsmith a young oak tree, and he has walked through the protest between his two departments.
“I was recognised as a Conservative, MP, minister of government, someone you might expect protesters to protest against, and they were totally civilised, totally polite, we had proper discussions,” he says.
“I’m very sympathetic to the cause, obviously, and I think they are obviously right to be fighting tooth and nail to get these issues taken more seriously. [But] I think some of their tactics are unstrategic, I don’t think you bring more people on side by infuriating people going about their daily lives.
“I also worry about some of the language being used, the absolute certainty that we have x number of years… it just lacks credibility… But I don’t want to criticise them, because on balance I think what they’ve done has been a good thing.”
Not like the prime minister, then, who recently mocked the campaigners? “I wouldn’t call them ‘uncooperative crusties’!” Goldsmith laughs.
Having voted for Labour’s motion to declare a climate emergency in May, Goldsmith avoids the question of whether the government should declare one, as per Extinction Rebellion’s demands.
“I do believe that it’s a climate emergency, and an extinction emergency as well… I’m much more interested in the government doing the right things, doing what it can to solve the problem. I’m proud of what the government is doing.”
Although the government has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and will double overseas spending on tackling climate change, it’s not enough for many campaigners. Labour and the Green party want to reach net zero two decades earlier, and multiple expert reports warn the UK is on track to miss its current target.
“I believe we can and will meet that target earlier than 2050,” Goldsmith insists. “Technology is moving incredibly quickly… How soon before everyone who drives a car is driving an electric car? It will be just a few years away, in my view. Much sooner than the targets that have been set, which is no more diesel engines being sold by 2040. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will achieve that target long before.”
Still, the UK is likely to exceed its next carbon cap. “We’re not on track to meet our next carbon budget,” Goldsmith admits. “We have to step up. There’s no point pretending we are meeting something that we’re not meeting, but we have the tools and we can do it.”
With Glasgow hosting the UN climate change summit in 2020, Goldsmith wants the UK to set the agenda on biodiversity. “Next year’s been described as a ‘super-year’ for nature. And I mean, it frankly has to be, or we’re stuffed.”
He’s adamant about government responsibility for the planet: “Governments should not be ever left off the hook in terms of their contribution to the solution.”
The importance of individual contributions are “overhyped”, he argues. “We can be conscious in the decisions we make as much as possible, but I don’t think you can wag your finger and tell people ‘you’ve got to eliminate your pollution footprint’, because that would require people to live like monks.”
Goldsmith himself avoids throwing plastic away, and hasn’t used plastic bags “for a very long time”.
A tote man, then? “I’m a what?” he asks. I describe a canvas tote. “I’m not that either! The truth is I normally forget any kind of bag, and just stuff every pocket and down my trousers and stuff…” (Confirming this, his government aide nods fondly like an exasperated spouse.)
The Bank of England Governor Mark Carney recently commented that companies and industries that don’t move towards zero-carbon will be punished by investors and go “bankrupt”.
Goldsmith believes there’s “an enormous amount government can do in terms of setting directions” for businesses, and reveals, “we’re looking at what it would take to eliminate deforestation from our supply chains here in this country, which is huge. That’s not just government canteen departments – it’s the economy.”
Pursuing sustainability may be tough come Brexit, however, as a leaked memo from his department warned this month of pressure to drop agri-food standards during free trade negotiations with the US.
“There’s a commitment that we are not going to undercut our producers by bringing in substandard produce,” Goldsmith, a long-time eurosceptic, says. “If you look at the government line as opposed to what is occasionally rumoured or pops out of a department.”
So no concerns about happening?
“No, look, the government is in the right place on this. Will future governments be tempted to water things down? Possibly, but then it is for parliament and for people to apply pressure, but that won’t be necessary with this government.”
There is one government commitment that Goldsmith must find excruciating to defend, however.
As he’d always pledged to do, he resigned his seat over the approval of expanding Heathrow, triggering a by-election at the end of 2016. He stood as an independent and was beaten by the Lib Dems.
The Tories held off standing a candidate against him, and he was allowed back into the fold in 2017, winning by an eye-watering 45 votes.
Critics saw it as a hypocritical stunt, with The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson questioning his “hissy-fit by-election”, and the Tory MP for Bexhill and Battle Huw Merriman recently accusing him of having “crawled back as a Conservative MP despite our party still backing Heathrow” on Twitter.
So how can Goldsmith represent the government when it’s in favour? The leader of Richmond Council, Gareth Roberts, is calling for a full independent review of the project.
“My position on Heathrow hasn’t changed,” Goldsmith says. “I think it’s a bonkers scheme, and all the arguments that I’ve been using for the last ten years and repeating ad nauseam are true, in my view, and I see nothing to persuade me that they’re wrong…
“It’s currently out of government hands because it’s been through parliament. Unfortunately, parliament voted for it overwhelmingly – I’m still surprised by some of the MPs who voted for it, who nevertheless campaign heavily on things like climate change and air quality, but they did.”
The Prime Minister, who promised his west London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 2015 that he would “lie down in front of bulldozers” against Heathrow expansion and opposed it throughout his London mayoralty, has also backtracked.
“He has done more than almost any other politician on that issue,” says Goldsmith. “There’s a difference from being a constituency MP and a mayor of London on the one hand, versus being prime minister on the other. You can’t just pretend that parliament hasn’t voted overwhelmingly for Heathrow expansion. So he is in a more delicate, more complex position than someone like me, for example.”
So will Goldsmith be pushing for a review, like the one HS2 is undergoing?
“If there were a review into Heathrow, and it was a proper review, and one that was entirely objective and began with a fresh canvas, in my view the review would conclude that it’s a bad project,” he responds.
“Heathrow still has to go through all kinds of cumbersome planning and policy processes, and I’m not convinced that it’ll survive that.
He claims the airport will “struggle to come up with the cash” and therefore lean on the state for “really vast sums of money from the public purse, and I don’t think there’s much appetite, if any appetite for that.
“I think it's a bad scheme, I think it’ll do harm, but if I was asked to bet on whether Heathrow’s going to expand, I still believe Heathrow is more unlikely than likely to expand.”-
Goldsmith is, incidentally, a betting man. He invested in a high-end bookmaker called Fitzdares in the early noughties and is known as a keen poker player. This is part of the glitzy London socialite persona that has dogged his stop-start political career – ever classed by his detractors as a hobbyist or dilettante.
In 2013, for example, when asked about running for London mayor, he said “I think people have had enough of white, male Etonians. I’m not sure my chances would be very high.”
Two years later, he declared his candidacy.
During this election against Labour’s Sadiq Khan in 2016, Goldsmith’s reputation as a green Tory was sullied by his campaign’s nastiness. It painted Khan, who would go on to become London’s first Muslim mayor, as “radical” and “dangerous”. An op-ed appeared in the Mail on Sunday by Goldsmith calling Labour terrorism apologists, beside a picture of a bus blown up during the 7/7 bombings in the capital (he later called the image “inappropriate”).
The campaign was also accused of using stereotypes in targeted leafletting to try and divide London’s Asian communities, warning Sikhs and Hindus that the Pakistani Khan “supports a wealth tax on family jewellery”.
His own sister, the journalist Jemima Goldsmith – who was married to the former cricketer Imran Khan, now prime minister of Pakistan – tweeted that it was “sad” her brother’s “campaign did not reflect who I know him to be – an eco friendly, independent-minded politician with integrity”.
Does he have any regrets?
“Well, I regret not winning it, because I think I would’ve done great things as mayor,” he replies. “So the campaign went wrong, and I lost as a consequence, and I wish it hadn’t gone that way.”
He elaborates: “I guess the regret that I have is that I allowed a situation where people afterwards, I think for sometimes quite cynical reasons, were able to describe me as Islamophobic, because I’m not, and had never been, half my family are Muslim.
“I look back at things that I said and did and I would challenge anyone to find a single example of anything which even comes close to Islamophobia, or any form of racism, which is something I abhor,” he says. “And I think that it was quite a deliberate strategy to create that impression, and I regret that.
“I look back and I don’t think there was anything that I have said or done or been responsible for that in any way is disrespectful of any of London’s communities or which could in any way be regarded as Islamophobic. So it’s not something that I worry about now, but it bothered me for a bit after the election.”
If the next election is called this year, Goldsmith will be asking his constituents to vote for him for the fourth time since 2016. He is likely to lose his seat, as a Brexiteer representing a Remain-voting area. In a recent tweet, he called colleagues planning to vote down another deal “a disgrace”, despite having rebelled last year on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.
“I just cannot see how anyone imagines it’s in our interests for this paralysis to continue,” he says.
“Politics has become so toxic, the issue has divided so many entities, whether it’s communities, it’s pitted family against family, colleague against colleague, and as a country we are treading water.”
Has it divided his own family?
“No, look, I’m surrounded by people I don’t agree with on lots of issues!” he laughs. “I don’t judge – I don’t befriend, or unfriend, people on the basis of their political views, but I know plenty of people who have, and there’s no doubt it’s ripped people apart.”
Anoosh Chakelian is Senior Writer for the New Statesman.