The demise of the Department of Energy and Climate Change will not derail the UK's green economy, but it still sends all the wrong messages
The creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was one of the single best decisions of the Brown administration. It remains to be seen if its demise is one of most inspired or one of the most damaging decisions of the May administration.
Gordon Brown's introduction of DECC sent a crucial signal - it confirmed action on climate change was a cabinet level responsibility and proved that energy and low carbon infrastructure were inextricably linked. More importantly, it worked.
There were teething problems and considerable tensions as civil servants who had spent there entire life working on delivering traditional energy infrastructure were challenged by environmental experts and chief scientists who demanded everything about the department's goals and practices be transformed. But, aided by a series of extremely capable Secretaries of State, DECC started to deliver.
When you take a step back and look at the progress the department has overseen over the past eight years it is a truly remarkable achievement. Emissions have fallen drastically and consistently, investment in clean energy has hit record levels, and there have been none of the disastrous economic impacts critics of climate action predicted (in fact, any disastrous economic impacts came courtesy of those same critics in their other guises as austerity cheerleaders and eurosceptic agitatators). With the coal phase out well and truly underway, new energy is increasingly clean energy and clean energy is increasingly cheap energy (as the NAO confirmed again this week). DECC can take a lot of credit.
Inevitably, there were numerous policy mis-steps and damaging u-turns that badly undermined investor confidence. However, the bulk of them were the result of interference from a Treasury that is still yet to fully comprehend the essential nature of decarbonisation. The tragedy of DECC is the same as the wider tragedy of the Cameron era - a sense of what might have been.
But faced with these challenges, time and again DECC managed to push back against the old school Treasury mandarins and deliver continued emissions reductions. And it was the structure of the department that helped this fight back. It is notable that there was no Department of Transport and Climate Change, and transport emissions have stalled. There was no Department of Farming and Climate Change, and agricultural emissions are rising. There was a Department of Energy and Climate Change, and in less than a decade energy emissions have fallen further and faster than anyone anticipated.
So why kill it off in its prime?
There are two competing schools of thought, neither of which are mutually exclusive.
The generous interpretation for the new May government is that climate action is now baked into Whitehall so effectively that a dedicated department is not needed. The Climate Change Act stands, as does the Paris Agreement. The Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is, by default, in all but name, the Department of Business, Clean Energy, and Low Carbon Industrial Strategy.
There are good reasons to believe this analysis is not just blind green optimism in the face of the most assertively right wing, anti-regulation cabinet in a generation. Greg Clark's appointment as the new Secretary of State is great news for the green economy. He is almost universally regarded as a serious and capable operator, one of the good guys, and a long-standing and avowed supporter of the green economy and action on climate change. Theresa May has given no indication that she wants to water down the UK's commitment to climate action. Philip Hammond's stated support for climate action suggests the UK now has its greenest Chancellor since Brown left Number 11.
Moreover, if scrapping DECC six years ago, as some Tory climate sceptics wanted, would have been a disaster, now that is no longer the case. Clean energy is undercutting fossil fuels, the green economy is worth billions and employ hundreds of thousands, the sector is resilient enough not to need its hand to be held by a dedicated department.
And yet, if BEIS is to be a green department why not give it a green name? Names matter. Departmental organisation is not just a concern for over-paid management consultants.
Andrea Leadsom's declaration this morning that "the assumption that you need to have a department for something in order to meet its objectives is just not one that I would agree with" hails from the same logic defying ballpark as her recent thoughts on journalistic ethics.
If nothing else, the merging of DECC and BIS creates a bandwidth problem. It would be informative to know if Amber Rudd thinks that on top of delivering the new carbon plan, passing the fifth carbon budget, ushering through Hinkley Point, developing a new CCS strategy, drawing up a renewable heat plan, preparing for the COP22 summit, negotiating the UK's relationship with the EU energy union, and tackling ongoing blackout concerns she would also have had time to oversee a new industrial strategy, drive innovation in the wake of Brexit uncertainty, and restore business confidence across the board. Clark is going to be staggeringly busy, regardless of how many junior ministers are appointed. By definition climate change has been diluted at cabinet level.
The axing of climate change from the departmental nameplate also matters. It sends a signal about priorities and it is not a good one. If Brexit now has a department to reflect its position as the biggest short term challenge and opportunity the UK faces, there should be a Department of Decarbonisation to reflect climate change's status as the biggest long term challenge and opportunity we face.
Add in the fact Leadsom's reward for a leadership campaign that was almost elegant in its incompetence is to head up a badly under resourced Defra just as it is thrown right into one of the most complex parts of the Brexit negotiations, and it is easy to see why some green business leaders will be mightily concerned this evening.
There are still causes for optimism for the green economy and still people within government who fully understand the critical importance of climate action. But the optics matter, and it feels as if the green Tories' hand has been weakened this evening.
One of the reasons Gordon Brown's introduction of DECC was so widely praised was because it pushed climate change up the political agenda in a way that was hard to be reversed. After all, surely the only way a new government could ditch climate change as a cabinet level post was if they could show that climate change had been solved, or prove that action on climate change had become truly embedded within government and the economy? We can now only hope May's optimistic belief climate change is now so core to the government's mission that it does not need a department is justified.
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