Can UK Climate Policy Weather the Closure of DECC?

In periods of political turmoil or instability, priorities tend to become even more short-term focused than usual. Slow developing, or long term issues inevitably take a back-seat to more immediate concerns. It’s no wonder then that significant concern has been raised about the UK’s long-term commitment to climate change (amongst other environmental sustainability issues) following the Brexit vote to leave the EU, and appointment of a new governmental cabinet. But just how damaging could these changes be for UK climate and energy policy? Maybe not as much as some predict.

There have been two key changes within Theresa May’s new government—neither of which have received a particularly favourable response from the environmental community. The first was the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as environment secretary. The Conservative “Leave” campaigner is now in charge of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). With roughly 80% of environmental legislation regulated by the EU, and a strong reliance on the EU for farming subsidies, Defra is likely to be one of the most challenging departments to lead in a post-Brexit UK.

Does Leadsom seem prepared or qualified for such a tough task? I’m afraid I can offer little in the way of optimism on this front. Leadsom’s experience in resolving complex political issues—of which she will encounter again and again during such an extreme transition term—is not reassuring. That’s looking beyond her track record on environmental policy decisions, which includes previously voting against UK climate change targets; voting for the sale of British forestry; and a strong stance in favour of repealing the fox hunting ban. I haven’t found much positivity to soften the blow on this one. All I can offer on this front is that her influence will hopefully only last a few years (which seems long, but is arguably short-term on sustainability and environmental terms). How much damage can she really do over that period?

The potentially more influential change—a decision that could stand much longer than Leadsom—was the abolishment of the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). This has been merged into a new governmental department: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). With the exception of a few, most within the climate change “arena” have met this decision with a high degree of animosity.

In truth, my initial reaction was largely negative—this represents a lack of commitment to climate change; the government are trying to sweep it under another banner; we’re going to fall even further behind on our mitigation targets. But upon some longer reflection, and taking a step back, I’ve slowly came round to the idea that it might not be as bad as it seems—at least, it doesn’t have to be. We could potentially utilise this period of transition to kickstart wider progress than we’ve achieved to date.

How long have we been arguing that our business leaders need to be taking more interest in climate change; that economist need to be heeding the financial risks and opportunities; that climate change strategy needs to be embedded across the spectrum and within a wider strategy network? We make these arguments over and over, because they’re true. Climate change can no longer be seen as a bolt-on consideration; it has to become an integrated part of the bigger picture.

If we want it to, this is a prime opportunity to do just that. Greg Clark has been made head of BEIS. I admit to knowing very little about him, other than the fact that he’s an economist by training and has consistently shown not only a strong awareness of climate change as a threat, but actually shows a pretty rational understanding of its risks. I have a couple of idols that I follow, and those judgement I tend to put a lot of trust in (they’ve yet to let me down)—one of them is Chris Goodall. Hopefully he doesn’t mind me sharing his view on Clark’s appointment—I’ve picked it up from his weekly newsletter [if you don’t currently follow Chris, he has a blog “Carbon Commentary”, which he manages to update much more frequently than mine…]:

Greg Clark was made head of the merged industry and energy departments. Environmentalists moaned about the demotion of low-carbon ambitions. I think this is wrong. Clark seems to be a centrist economist by training (he was a member of the Social Democrats in the late ‘80s and has a PhD in economics). His very tightly organised doctoral thesis (here) shows an openness to non-conventional economic models as opposed to raw free-market ideology. My prediction? Put a trained economist who believes in climate science (which Clark does) into government and a global carbon price will come to the forefront of UK policy. The second focus of an economist will be on the operation of the wholesale electricity market, a major barrier to the development of storage.

Beyond the head of the department itself, the merger offers a prime opportunity to increase the presence of climate change policy across business, economic, and industrial strategy. This is not a complete abolition of climate change leadership—there will still be staff members employed in the role of managing the UK’s climate progress. Can you imagine having a presence at top-level business meetings, economic policy discussions and industrial strategy plans, consistently asking the question “how does this tie into our mitigation targets?” and “how can we further re-align this with our low-carbon energy objectives?”.

Rather than being in isolated department, an integration could offer the chance to weave our climate ambitions into every discussion. Is this not what we’ve been arguing and asking for a long time? Everyone likes to talk about inter- or multi-disciplinarity—it’s essential—but often we shoot ourselves in the foot by putting the barriers up when opportunities to integrate present themselves.

Of course, all of this is hypothetical—I fully acknowledge that this won’t, and is unlikely to, happen by default. I’m not naïve enough to suggest that climate change strategy is going to suddenly become integral to our business and economic planning moving forward. But if we fight hard enough, it could certainly gain a much larger, and more positively-driven presence than it currently has. Either way, we’re left with two options: to forever mourn the loss of DECC, or to try to build something better and more holistic with what has fallen out. The only option which is going to get us anywhere is the latter.


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