Michael Gove has been criticised for talking “nonsense” after blaming the EU for the British government missing its target on planting trees.
The former environment secretary’s comments came during an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme in which he insisted the Conservatives were dedicated to meeting the challenge of the climate emergency.
Pushed on the fact that the government was set to fail to deliver on the 2015 Tory manifesto promise to plant another 11 million trees by 2020, Mr Gove said: “And that’s why we need to leave the European Union.”
He added: “Inside the European Union we’re trapped in the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s one of the big benefits of leaving the European Union, and it will allow us to meet these tree-planting targets which will ensure that we deal with the climate crisis that we face.”
Environmental groups warn expanding forest cover is vital if Britain is to meet climate targets and protect wildlife and have urged the government to implement legally binding targets in the new Environment Bill.
The government has planted just a third of the trees it promised in 2015 and campaigners say ministers failed to implement policy to increase that rate.
The Conservatives claim farmers would be given more support for tree-planting if the UK was no longer beholden to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP.)
But Guy Shrubsole, a trees campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Blaming the EU for successive UK government’s failure to plant more trees is nonsense – given that the UK has 13 per cent woodland cover, when the EU average is 37 per cent.”
Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, added: “Michael Gove is barking up the wrong tree and knows it.
“EU farming policies can be blamed for many things but not for the government’s failure to plant more trees. The UK has less forest cover than most countries under the CAP.
“Successive Conservative governments have already ensured we will miss one tree-planting target in 2020, and we’re on track to miss the one in 2022. Now they’ve set themselves a new target for 2025 and people will be wondering whether this is raising the ambition or just moving the goalposts yet again.”
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake also criticised Mr Gove, telling Sky News: “I’m not aware that there’s anything that the EU could do if they wanted to to stop us planting trees.”
Parties across the political spectrum have been boasting about the tree-planting efforts they would undertake if they won the general election. The Conservatives said they will triple planting rates while the Liberal Democrats promised they will plant twice as many trees as the Tories.
Boris Johnson has announced a £640m Nature for Climate fund which would increase tree-planting in England, with the government aiming to work with the devolved administrations to boost tree-planting rates to 30,000 hectares every year. The Conservatives said this could mean 30 million more trees.
The Lib Dems said they would plant 60 million trees every year if elected, describing their proposals as “the largest tree-planting programme in UK history”, while pointing out that the Tories have “woefully failed to meet their own targets for planting trees in the past year”.
Labour also said the Conservatives had failed to meet previous tree-planting targets and said Mr Johnson was attempting to “greenwash his atrocious environmental record”.
Under the Tory plans, new forests would spring up and existing woodland such as the Northern Forest and Northumberland Forest would be expanded, while more trees would also be planted in towns and cities.
The fund would also be used to restore degraded peatland across the country, the party said.
Mr Johnson said: “There is nothing more conservative than protecting our environment and these measures sit alongside our world-leading commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“But, just as with our planned investment in schools and hospitals, we can only do any of this if we end the gridlock and deadlock in parliament with a Conservative-majority government.”
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said: “It’s clear that the Conservative Party doesn’t take climate change seriously.
“Only the Liberal Democrats have a radical plan to make a real impact in the fight against climate change and build a brighter future for our planet.”
Sue Hayman, shadow environment secretary, said: “When Labour comes forward with its own ambitious proposals as part of our Plan For Nature, they will be informed by what the science says is necessary and possible – not by what Boris Johnson thinks he needs to do to greenwash his atrocious environmental record.”
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