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My chairmanship: reflecting on the environmental audit committee

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

4 min read

As a new parliamentary session begins, former Chair of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Rt Hon Philip Dunne, explores the work of the committee in the previous Parliament and his hopes for the committee in the future

Since the dissolution of the 2019-2024 Parliament, I have stepped down as MP for Ludlow and ceased to be chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. In the few days between the announcement of the general election and the dissolution of Parliament, I was pleased our committee was able to publish a report summarising the work we had done during the Parliament.

Others will judge whether this has been impactful, but we have certainly been busy during the past four and a half years, not least in the face of the disruption caused by the global pandemic.

Since forming in early 2020 after the 2019 general election, our committee held 178 meetings, of which 146 involved taking oral evidence from witnesses, and published over 2,200 submissions of written evidence. This work allowed us to publish 23 reports to the House of Commons and 18 responses from the government to our reports.

Much of our scrutiny of environmental matters over the last Parliament concerned the passage and provisions of what is now the Environment Act 2021 and how these have been implemented. Key measures included the establishment of long-term targets for improving the environment; an Office for Environmental Protection; and statutory environmental principles to guide policymakers across government.

Early in the Parliament, our outstanding team of clerks ensured that soon after the pandemic struck, we could move our meetings and evidence sessions online, which allowed the committee’s work to continue.

In 2021, we published our reports on Greening the post-Covid recovery and Energy Efficiency of Existing Homes, following which the chancellor endorsed one of our principal recommendations by announcing in the 2022 Spring Statement the expansion of VAT relief for energy-saving materials, giving a significant boost to the take-up of home insulation and renewable energy solar PV systems.

“Much of our scrutiny of environmental matters over the 2019-2024 Parliament concerned the passage and provisions of what is now the Environment Act 2021 and how these have been implemented”

I have campaigned personally for better water quality in our rivers, so I was pleased the committee agreed to take forward work on this issue. Our inquiry into Water Quality in Rivers, which resulted in our seminal report in January 2022, was recognised by the Institution of Civil Engineers when it presented the committee with its Chris Binnie Award for Sustainable Water Management for 2022.

We have had a significant strand of work in exploring how to boost nature and published two reports on the United Kingdom’s role in promoting biodiversity, both domestically and internationally. We were close to concluding our inquiry into The role of natural capital in the green economy, on which I hope our successor committee will decide to publish a report arising from this work.

Another innovative area of our work was done by our sub-committee, which undertook research into the UK’s role in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Members of the committee visited both, we believe the first-ever visit by a Commons select committee to Antarctica. Our report, The UK and the Arctic Environment, was presented to an Arctic Circle Conference in Iceland when published in 2023. Our planned report on Antarctica will inform a report which our successor committee may choose to publish.

One of the key functions of the Environmental Audit Committee is to hold the government to account on its legally binding net-zero obligations. So, we have maintained our scrutiny of government policies to deliver emissions reductions, taking evidence regularly from the Climate Change Committee on progress in reducing emissions.

We also undertook a series of short reviews of emerging and enabling technologies where the UK has significant opportunities to develop major new renewable industrial sectors. The Secretary of State for Energy and Net Zero responded positively to our proposals to increase parliamentary scrutiny for the Seventh Carbon Budget next year.

It is impossible to recognise all the work of the committee over five years in one article – nor to thank properly all of the excellent committee staff and specialists, without whom our work could not be done. But I hope the work we achieved will speak for itself and help inform the next parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee in their own chosen lines of inquiry.

This article was originally published in The Path To Net Zero supplement circulated alongside The House magazine. To find out more visit The Path To Net Zero hub.

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