Michael Gove is great at green policies – whenever they make him look good

His latest effort is a kneejerk gesture that's unenforceable, and his party will hate it. But the environment secretary already knows that

John Rentoul
Tuesday 14 May 2019 14:55
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Michael Gove talks about vow to cut out single-use plastic for Lent while using plastic cup

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, wants to crack down on drivers who leave their engines running in stationary cars. Of course he does: it’s a kneejerk environmental gesture that is unenforceable – but it certainly makes him look good.

As we report today, Gove said that instant fines for repeat offenders should be considered. Naturally, he added that it was important to ensure that the new powers would be used proportionately by local councils. His department said in a statement: “We are making guidance for local authorities clearer.”

So it’s a matter for local councils and the police, neither of them answerable to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and few fines are ever actually imposed.

Since 2017, Westminster City Council, for example, has issued only 37 fines, which sounds like quite a lot to me, given how hard it must be to issue a warning and then swoop after it has been ignored for a minute. But the impact of that on air quality in London is less than negligible. It is like homeopathy for our environmental ills.

Gove knows perfectly well, because he takes green politics seriously, that fining the drivers of idling cars is pretty irrelevant in dealing with air pollution, let alone in dealing with climate change. But it grabs a headline and sends a message.

Part of the message is fine, which is that drivers ought to think about turning their engine off when parked or in a jam. But the other part is political: Gove, it says, is the candidate for the Conservative leadership who cares about climate change, plastic in our oceans and puppy farms.

So he does, although it is not clear that this will be enough to overcome the hostility towards him among young people dating from his time as education secretary (2010-2014).

He knows that the way to deal with air pollution in cities is to accelerate the switch from petrol and especially diesel engines to hybrid and electric vehicles. Hybrid cars automatically switch off their petrol engines when stationary. And he knows that the way to minimise climate change is to generate electricity from renewable sources.

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This is long-term and difficult politics. The British government, including Gove, has a reasonable record on such questions, but is always going to be criticised by the Green Party and protesters such as Extinction Rebellion for not doing enough and for failing to take the climate emergency seriously.

So Gove does the only things a politician in government can. He met some of the Extinction Rebels (one said he was “less shit” than they thought he would be); and he strikes green poses, such as demanding instant fines for idlers – even though he knows they are unworkable and ineffective, and that, even if they were effective, the Conservatives, the party of the car owner, would never take to them.

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