How green will new environment secretary Thérèse Coffey be? | Therese Coffey

The environment sector has reacted with some surprise that Rishi Sunak has appointed Thérèse Coffey as environment secretary.

At a crucial time for the environment, with much important and complex legislation coming down the line including the farming payments review due this week, many hoped the new prime minister would choose someone with recent senior experience in the department.

Names hopefully floated around as the reshuffle took place included George Eustice, the former secretary of state under Boris Johnson, and Victoria Prentis, a former minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) who is popular in the farming sector. Some even dared to dream that Michael Gove, the architect of a lot of the post-Brexit environmental legislation which was under threat by Liz Truss, may make a return.

However, there are some points of hope in Coffey’s appointment, despite the fact she has not shown much interest in the environment in the past. Unlike her predecessor Ranil Jayawardena, she held a junior ministerial role at Defra for three years.

Shaun Spiers, chief executive of environmental thinktank Green Alliance, said: “Thérèse Coffey has experience at Defra, working with Michael Gove when there was a strong push to show that Britain could be greener outside the EU than as a member state. It’s good that she won’t have to start from scratch and can build on this experience to drive reform forward. In particular, as a minister in Theresa May’s government, she understood the importance of the circular economy, a policy area that has stalled since then.”

Some of the greener Tories are hopeful she may prove a good influence. Philip Dunne, the chair of the environmental audit committee, told the Guardian that she is an “excellent appointment” due to her experience and the fact she holds a rural seat, Suffolk Coastal.

One senior source in the farming sector was relieved to see any change, saying simply: “Anyone is better than Ranil.”

While secretary of state for the Department for Work and Pensions, Coffey encouraged green investment, saying: “Pensions can be the superpower in delivering prosperity for people and the planet in our race to net zero.”

Coffey also welcomed the Dasgupta review into biodiversity, and Defra’s nature strategy in 2020, proclaiming: “This is a really exciting moment for our natural environment after years of work. Our nature strategy in harmony with and a great catalyst for our climate change strategy will help us both achieve net zero and save our planet.”

Coffey will not be likely to take a hard line on the carbon emissions from meat, if her previous tweets are anything to go by. In 2018, responding to a Guardian article about the benefits of a meat tax, she said: “What next, no spag bol?”

Her tweets have caused controversy in the past – when environment minister in 2018 she celebrated using potent herbicide RoundUp in her garden, which contains the controversial ingredient glyphosate. She claimed the weedkiller was “amazing”, prompting scientist Dr David Coombes to call the tweet a “candidate for most inappropriate tweet of the year”.

Coffey faces a difficult task. To create the stability her new boss has said he wants, she will need to calm tensions between the government and environment groups including the RSPB and National Trust, which were on the cusp of organizing mass protests over the government’s planned “war on nature”.

Jayawardena, who until Tuesday held the post, took a firm line with the groups, and it is believed he told MPs to say the RSPB was misleading people about plans to scrap nature protections to try to boost membership numbers. It remains to be seen whether the post-Brexit nature-friendly farming schemes, which Jayawardena planned to weaken, will remain in place.

Coffey has stated her support for such measures in the past, though, and once said: “Nature-based solutions really are the best and most cost-effective way to tackle climate change, with multiple benefits for the environment and communities.”

It is also unknown whether Coffey is enthusiastic about deregulation as his predecessor, but he set a high bar. At the Conservative party conference this year, Jayawardena argued that the job of the environment secretary is to “leave farmers alone”.

However, it is not clear they want to be left alone. Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, told the Guardian: “I look forward to working with Thérèse Coffey and hope that she will urgently provide farmers with certainty on Elms [the planned scheme to offer payments to farmers based on nature-friendly measures]delivering for food production and the environment”.