Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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We need to extend our idea of protecting the environment beyond the necessary focus on carbon

4 min read

Covid has re-politicised the debate around the work of Defra – it’s time to shake off its administrative image and innovate

Let’s start with something we can all agree on: protecting our environment and tackling climate change cannot be side issues in the months and years ahead. To achieve this, we need to reset our expectations and views of Defra.

Technical and focused on the detail, we need to embrace the work of Defra as political not administrative in its aims. Well-meaning peripheral projects will not cut carbon nor stem the loss of biodiversity. That is why I want a new political focus on Defra and its work. 

Ending the breathing of dirty air is a choice that ministers continue to dodge

With Britain facing the triple challenges of a no-deal Brexit, the climate emergency and the coronavirus, the issues overseen by Defra have taken on a new importance and demand a new energy.

Food is now political in a way it should have been but never was. Not just for those unable to afford to feed their families, but in the difficulties facing farming and harvesting of food, in trade deals undercutting our farmers, and in the coming debate on gene-editing.

Fishing has always been political. In framing it solely around sovereignty, the government has lost sight of the importance of creating jobs in our coastal towns, and better managing stocks so there will be enough fish not just for our children but our grandchildren’s generations. Boldness requires a departure from the Cummings lens and for an honest appraisal of our nation’s fishing ports. I want to see fishing made more sustainable – environmentally and economically – and that starts with creating more jobs in fishing.

Air quality is political because the reopening of the economy has reminded us that ending the breathing of dirty air is a choice that ministers continue to dodge.

We need to create a new urgency around nature, a new focus on food and a new drive around the ecological emergency. And it is political because I want Labour to fulfil its role as the party of the countryside and coastal communities, to win the marginal seats required to put Keir Starmer into Downing Street.

But more than this, we need to reset our idea of environment to extend beyond the necessary focus on carbon. A world in which we cut emissions to net zero but lose habitats, species and diversity of life on this planet is not one I want to live in. That is why Labour’s motion in Parliament last year to declare a climate emergency focused on the ecological emergency as much as the carbon crisis. Labour’s approach is broad not narrow on the environment – carbon and nature must sit alongside each other in all policymaking.

Addressing these priorities does not necessarily mean more financial commitments. Indeed, the Fisheries Bill committee over the past fortnight has underlined how many of the improvements to sustainability and creation of jobs in our coastal towns – sadly all opposed by the government – can be delivered without new spending, but just using the powers ministers already have.

“Building back better” must not become another soundbite abused by ministers and discarded when uncomfortable; it must be the guiding philosophy of how we face the coming economic storm.

Labour is prioritising beating the pandemic and making sure we can all go back to doing the things we love as quickly and as safely as possible. Meanwhile the Conservatives are prioritising making sure everyone in the Cabinet and their mates can continue hunting and shooting.

I’m proudly red on the outside and green on the inside in my approach. The coronavirus crisis does not mean we should put our efforts in fighting the climate emergency on hold. Quite the opposite, we need to double down on our fight to avoid climate disaster.

What we need now is a programme of green recovery, building on the momentum that came from Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution and Green New Deal policies. It is time Defra became more political as that is where the coming debate will focus.


Luke Pollard is Labour and Co-operative MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and shadow environment secretary

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