Abolishing DECC and climate change

One of the first acts of Theresa May as Prime Minister was to abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change and merge it into an expanded Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There are differing views on the impact.

The New Economic Foundation (NEF) argues it’s a bad idea along with most environmental groups. When Gordon Brown first created the Department it was a signal that the UK at last recognised and understood the dangers of climate change – an issue that will define the 21st century and the future of our global society. The least it deserved was a strong dedicated government department.

They also argue that tackling climate change should not be just an adjunct to other policy issues. It requires a central co-ordinated strategy; if we leave it to the afterthoughts of various departments then we will fail. DECC gave strategic direction and emphasised the opportunities, whereas May seems more focused on costs. Adapting our economy for a clean future would be an opportunity – a chance to nurture new industries, improve health and wellbeing, and rebalance our economy.

Abolishing DECC also raises the question, is the 2008 Climate Change Act safe? Including the commitment to an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.

Matthew Bilson from the University of Sheffield, while accepting the positive role DECC played in climate change negotiations, can see some advantages. He argues a focus on business is necessary if the UK is going to continue to reduce its emissions: the switch from coal to low carbon sources means electricity supply is doing its bit, but other sectors – notably heat and transport – need to up their game. The country needs new policies, and the restructuring should help move low carbon thinking into the business and industry mainstream.

The business department has traditionally championed key sectors, including the aerospace, automotive and construction industries. Aligning those sectors with the low carbon energy priorities could ensure greater progress on electric vehicles, zero carbon homes or alternative aviation fuels. Somewhat more optimistically, he also argues that it could result in more stable energy policies on renewables, heavy industry, modular nuclear reactors and even getting CCS back on the agenda.

What really matters is the direction of government policy, rather than where the civil servants sit. The new business secretary, Greg Clarke, clearly stated the importance of clean energy and tackling climate change. However, the acid test will be the UK’s approach to the EU 2030 climate targets, and ratification of the Paris Agreement. This will keep up momentum, confidence and commitment going into COP22 in Morocco.

For now, the jury is still out.

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