Lord of the realm who is out to fix the environment

Lord Chris Smith, the former Islington MP, is the new chairman of the Environment Agency. But when it comes to tackling climate change, what are the hurdles he intends to overcome? Katie Masters finds out. Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury – sometime MP for

Lord Chris Smith, the former Islington MP, is the new chairman of the Environment Agency. But when it comes to tackling climate change, what are the hurdles he intends to overcome? Katie Masters finds out.

Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury - sometime MP for Islington South and Finsbury - is about to take on a new incarnation as chairman of the Environment Agency. It's a three-day-a-week post, carrying a salary of £102,000 a year.

"I start on Monday. Bastille Day," he says. "I'll be storming the walls of reluctance to accept the impact of climate change and its importance to the world."

It's fighting talk. But Smith doesn't go so far as to identify these walls of reluctance.

Presumably President George W Bush is one, but Smith himself points out that both new contenders for the White House have better environmental credentials than the present incumbent.

"It will take time for the tanker to turn around, but November will mean changes for the better in America."

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One wall could be the pocket of scientists who continue to demur over attributing changes in the world's climate to human activity.

But says Smith: "Hundreds of eminent scientists say there is no doubt that this has a human cause. The scientific consensus has become overwhelming."

And he suggests the public are now converts to the climate change cause.

"There's far greater public awareness of these issues than there was 10 years ago and a much better public willingness to address them."

So maybe the reluctant walls he's hoping to bring tumbling down are those in the Labour Party.

Green campaigners, such as Friends Of The Earth, say Gordon Brown has spent his first year as leader promising to tackle climate change and build a low carbon economy - but in practise has pursued policies that damage the environment.

They point to the government's refusal to review airport expansion plans and its rejection of calls for there to be a duty to consider climate change when planning for roads, airports and other major infrastructure projects.

But Smith seems loathe to consider the Labour Party as an obstacle to affirmative environmental action.

He prefers to focus on what he sees as a major achievement for the government - the Climate Change Bill currently going through the House of Commons.

"That sets in place - and this is the first time any country in the world has done this - legal targets for carbon dioxide reduction over the course of the next 20 years and beyond.

"Yes, we have targets that we signed up to at Kyoto. But this will make it legally binding on the government to meet those targets. That's pretty significant.

"It will set the standard globally for how countries are going to legally address climate change."

Setting aside the fact that there have been cross-party calls for this bill to be strengthened - not least by including international aviation and shipping emissions in the calculations, it is high time that the government turned its attention to cutting greenhouse gases.

Since 1990, there has been a 16 per cent cut in emissions, but those figures were largely created when the Conservatives moved the country away from coal power to gas. Since 1997, emissions haven't fallen.

"I entirely accept things haven't been as good as they should have been - but I don't think Labour's record has been all poor.

"You have to remember that, during the period since 1997, there's been very substantial economic growth.

"The fact that carbon emissions haven't risen in line with economic growth means there has been some degree of progress.

"But we need to look seriously at what we can do to encourage wiser energy use."

"The Environment Agency doesn't have specific responsibility for energy. We have responsibility for water, air and waste. Rivers, floods, coastal erosion, industrial waste, air pollution...

"But we can't and shouldn't be doing everything that relates to the environment.

"What we can do is keep the pressure up about the importance of the environment - by lobbying, discussing, using our access to the government and the opposition to make our case as effectively as we can."

Already the imagery of storming walls seems to have been toned down to having a serious conversation with the bricks. It's words, rather than action, which is being promised.

So what will actually be done? To be fair to Smith, he has not yet taken up his post and, as he says, has not yet had the chance to delve into all the issues attached to it.

He has not, for example, had a chance to go into the pressing problems of waste disposal - the limitations of landfill and the paucity of British recycling facilities.

But he does say he's a keen recycler himself.

The issue of flooding is one he's more comfortable with.

Following the independent review of last summer's flooding, he says that he'll certainly be picking up on Sir Michael Pitt's recommendation for a national flood warning centre and talking to the Met Office about how to implement it.

And he does have a genuine interest in environmental issues. Back in the 1980s he was on an environment select committee.

"We did an inquiry into the impact of acid rain.

"Looking at the devastation it was causing to forests and lakes across Europe made me determined that this was something that needed political action.

"It was primarily sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxides that were causing the problem and action was taken.

"It was probably not done early enough - but action was eventually taken to reduce emissions of those substances, especially from power stations and motor vehicles.

"As a result, we have a cleaner environment. What that demonstrates is that if we identify the problem and then take real steps we can bring about improvements."

Real steps. Action. That is what's needed.

Smith has had notable achievements in the past - restoring free admission to national museums and galleries and securing the biggest increases in funding for arts and sport that had been seen in decades.

Now, at the Environment Agency, he's got a staff of 12,000 and a budget of £1.1billion. Here's hoping that walls are actually stormed.