The UK no longer has a department with the words ‘climate change’ in its title. Climate policy is now the responsibility of a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This could be seen as a downgrading of climate action – and has been condemned by some green groups. But I think it is a step forward.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was created by Gordon Brown in 2008, with Ed Miliband as its first Secretary of State. Before 2008 energy had been the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry, and climate change dealt with by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). So different parts of the ‘energy trilemma’ – economic, social and environmental – were in different departments. The economic argument usually trumped the decarbonisation debate. The social part tended to get overlooked.
Before yesterday’s reshuffle there was some speculation that prime minister May would return to this arrangement. She has not, which is a relief. Defra is not a powerful department within Whitehall. Andrea Leadsom, the new Defra secretary, is not a strong champion of decarbonisation (though not opposed, as her record as a minister at DECC demonstrates). She is too wedded to deregulation to deliver strong climate action. Moreover, climate change is not just an environmental issue: it affects health, the economy, foreign policy and much more.
DECC was also not a strong Whitehall department. Its first two years, under Ed Miliband, saw the passing of the UK Climate Change Act (though, to be fair, this had been initiated by David Miliband when he was Defra secretary), a Feed In Tariff for small scale renewables and a raft of sensible strategies. Then came the coalition, with the Lib Dems running DECC. David Cameron went to the DECC building on his first day in office and promised “the greenest government ever”. In terms of clean energy, Cameron delivered – at least while in coalition with the Lib Dems. Installed UK renewable capacity nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015.
However, many Tories came to resent DECC as ‘a Lib Dem fiefdom’. Chris Huhne, DECC secretary in the first years of the coalition, fought many battles with Tory Chancellor George Osborne, winning some but losing most. His successor Ed Davey took a less confrontational approach; his main political problem was the promise by Ed Miliband, by then Labour leader in opposition, to freeze energy bills if he became prime minister – leading Cameron, a previous supporter of decarbonisation, to try to ‘cut the green crap’.
After the 2015 general election, Tory DECC secretary Amber Rudd reduced renewables subsidies. This was justifiable, given falls in costs, but was done too fast. The Treasury under Osborne was putting substantial pressure on DECC to cut subsidies. Not to meet austerity targets – subsidies come from fuel tariffs not taxes so do not increase government debt. Not due to concern about fuel poverty. (If Osborne had such concern, he hid it very effectively.) The pressure was partly due to the wish to reduce industrial energy costs to improve competitiveness, and partly an ideological desire to have less intervention in the market. Meanhwhile DECC’s staff numbers were slashed, and many of the best officials left.
Greg Clark is less neoliberal than Osborne was. He is clearly on the left of the Conservative party; indeed he was a Social Democrat activist while at university. He was an effective shadow DECC secretary before 2010, taking a pragmatic approach and being willing to listen and learn. Clark’s new department is in charge of industrial strategy. Lib Dem Vince Cable spoke about industrial strategy when he was running the business department 2010-15, but his Tory successor Sajid Javid did not, wanting to leave pretty much everything to the market. An industrial strategy is necessary in order to deliver decarbonisation. If one thinks that names of departments matter (which I don’t particularly), having industrial strategy in the name of a strong department is more important than having climate change in the name of a weak one.
However, the new business department will only succeed if it is supported by those at the top of government. Theresa May has not been much involved in climate discussions: there is no great overlap with her previous portfolio of home affairs. But Carbon Brief has helpfully found two quotes.
In July 2006 she said:
“I welcome that the Government has responded to cross-party pressure to make it easier for homes in Maidenhead [May’s constituency] and across the country to install renewable energy like solar panels or mini-wind turbines. Where the Government offers positive, constructive and reasonable policies, they will have my support. But the Government could do far more to promote green energy, rather than giving unfair subsidies to new nuclear power stations. Conservatives want to enhance our environment by seeking a long-term cross-party consensus on sustainable development and climate change – instead of short-term thinking or surrendering to vested interests. The modern, compassionate Conservative Party believes that quality of life matters just as much as quantity of money.”
In December 2008 she said:
“I am thrilled to see that after years of Conservative pressure, we have finally passed a necessary and ambitious piece of legislation on Climate Change. Britain is the first country in the world to formally bind itself to cut greenhouse emissions and I strongly believe this will improve our national and economic security. To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security and the Climate Change and Energy Bills mark an important step for both the health of our economy and the health of our nation. It is now vital that we stick to these targets. I will continue to put pressure on the Government over the third runway at Heathrow as an extra 222,000 flights a year would undermine our national targets and seriously damage the health of the local community.”
So the new prime minister accepts the need to move away from fossil fuels. The Hinkley subsidy will be questioned – as it should be in my view. Other nuclear options would require less subsidy. A new runway at Heathrow looks unlikely. (A new runway at Gatwick would similarly undermine national carbon targets. That is a battle to come.)
Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary is a bizarre appointment. Perhaps May believes that giving him a serious job will make him grow up and lose his buffoon image. If so, I hope she’s right, but doubt it. Boris set ambitious decarbonisation targets as mayor of London, but did little to deliver them – and the targets were safely ‘not in my term of office’. And he has questioned human responsibility for climate change in some of his newspaper articles. So much growing up is needed.
New chancellor Philip Hammond gave some strong speeches on climate change in his previous role as Foreign Secretary, highlighting the economic and security advantages of leading the decarbonisation effort. For example, in November last year he said:
“For too long, we’ve allowed the debate about climate change to be dominated by purists and idealists – many of whom operate on the left of the political spectrum – who actively promote the notion that they and only they, have the answers to the climate challenge; and that we have to sacrifice economic growth and prosperity in order to meet it.
I reject those arguments. I reject them first of all because wanting to protect the world we inherit, to pass it on intact to the next generation is a fundamentally conservative instinct. As long ago as 1988 former Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher said, “the last thing we want is to leave environmental debts for our children to clear up… No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.”
And I reject those arguments secondly because I do not accept that we have to choose between our future prosperity and safeguarding the future of our planet. This is not a zero sum game. As conservatives, we choose both.”
I am not a Conservative, but I choose both too.