Zac Goldsmith is MP for Richmond Park. Oliver Letwin is MP for West Dorset.
From the Clean Air Act in 1956, to Mrs Thatcher’s landmark address to the UN General Assembly in 1989, where she warned about the threat of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself, the Conservative Party has a long history of tackling the threats that face our planet.
Although that green thread running through the Conservative Party has been obscured at times, it was rediscovered by David Cameron.
Indeed, one of his final acts as Prime Minister was to pave the way for the protection of areas of ocean the size of India. And although the initiative was announced on a meagre press release, with no fanfare, it nevertheless amounted to the single biggest conservation intervention by any Government ever.
And this Conservative Government, under Theresa May, was elected on a pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than when we inherited it.
Now, as we leave the European Union, we must seize an historic opportunity to deliver on that pledge.
While we took opposing positions in the EU referendum, we both know that, done properly, Brexit gives us a chance to greatly improve our environment.
It goes without saying that our starting point must be to protect those EU environmental laws that have helped us clean up our environment. No one can deny that our rivers and beaches are cleaner because of EU regulations.
But the status quo is a low bar and we can go much further in areas where the European Commission in particular has failed to act, and even done harm.
Reforming the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy for example is perhaps the biggest opportunity of all. The current regime effectively rewards landowners simply for owning land, no matter how they manage it. It costs us £4 billion per year, but delivers little by way of public goods. Outside the EU, we can tailor that support to reward good stewardship of the land and nature.
The Withdrawal Bill is currently moving through Parliament. And within it is a commitment to incorporate EU environment laws into British law.
That is good news, but on its own, it’s not enough.
Michael Gove has said, rightly, that there will be a ‘governance gap’ when we leave the EU, and we do need to address that.
Existing agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency are able to take action against private bodies, but they do not have the power or independence to stand up to central government.
That is why we need a strong, independent body with teeth that can hold this government and its successors to account on the environment.
There is another gap that opens as we leave the EU. Many of our strongest protections, and the international commitments to which the UK has signed up, are underpinned by principles of environmental law, such as the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle. They do not exist in UK domestic law.
That is why it is so significant that Gove has agreed to create a new policy statement that will set out those key environmental principles, and to define them. It will draw on the EU’s current principles and it will guide future policy-making.
By early next year, the Government will launch a consultation on the new environmental body and the new national policy statement. And as it does so, it will need to cast the net far and wide to ensure all voices – and not just entrenched interests – are heard.
The Withdrawal Bill will face challenges as it moves through Parliament. Hundreds of Amendments have been tabled, dealing with a very wide range of issues.
Many of those amendments relate to the environment. We have been working closely with colleagues such as Richard Benyon, Theresa Villiers, Kemi Badenoch and others – as well as the leading environmental campaign organisations that crafted those amendments. The solution presented by the Environment Secretary reflects a consensus we reached. It renders many of those amendments redundant, and reflects on a government not only willing to listen to widespread concerns, but to act on them.
As Gove has said, nature has no voice in this debate, but it deserves one. We are delighted that he is providing one.