Eight years ago, Britain created the Department for Energy and Climate Change. It wasn’t the first country to have a climate change department. That was Australia in 2007. But it was the first to put climate change and energy together, acknowledging that they couldn’t be separated.
I wrote about it at the time on the now defunct climate new service Celsias.com. Ideally, this twin brief would prevent the government from pursuing competing agendas in different departments, with heads of department pulling in different directions. Energy lobbyists would be making their case to the minister in charge of climate change. Climate campaigners would be presenting their petitions to the person responsible for keeping the lights on. It could have been a good balance, and under the early leadership of Ed Miliband, it held those two priorities together well.
That early promise didn’t last beyond the 2010 election. Under the coalition government it became a small and convenient department to file a token Liberal Democrat, but the power remained with the treasury. Chancellor George Osborne, notably cool on the issue of climate change, repeatedly clashed with the Ed Davey over renewable energy subsidies and carbon targets. Already one of the smallest departments in government, the budgets were slashed again and again. As the Conservatives pushed hard for fracking in Britain, and brought in new support for North Sea oil and gas, it was clear that the dual priorities of the department wasn’t really working. Conservative back benchers began to agitate for it to be abolished and merged with Business, Innovation and Skills – again following Australia, which rolled its climate branch back in with industry in 2013.
After the Conservatives came back into power last year, the end of the department looked much more likely. In the latest round of cuts, it was looking at losing 90% of its staff – effectively ending it without the bad PR.
All told, yesterday’s move is little surprise: Theresa May, in assembling her new cabinet, has done away with the DECC and combined it with a new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department. It’s the energy half, you’ll notice, that made it into the business department’s name.
Some campaigners and politicians have protested the move. Ed Miliband disapproves, and it does send a message that climate change has been downgraded as a governmental priority. But then, it already had been downgraded. This is just the structures of government catching up with what we already knew, and in some ways it just does away with the pretence. I’m not sure that the issue will be any more marginalised than it already has been, and it may be better placed in a larger and more influential wing of government than tucked away in small one.
Ultimately the distinction of a specific department hasn’t meant a great deal. It’s been the commitment of the government overall that mattered. The existence of the DECC in its own right meant nothing if more powerful parts of government weren’t committed to climate change action. So the abolition of the DECC isn’t necessarily a problem. The more important question is where our leaders stand. And compared with three weeks ago, we may be better off.
For a start, George Osborne has been dethroned. Philip Hammond, who takes his place as Chancellor, couldn’t really be any more hostile than his predecessor. He said in a speech last year that “wanting to protect the world we inherit, to pass it on intact to the next generation is a fundamentally conservative instinct”. Greg Clark takes on climate at the business department as one of our greener Tories, with a good understanding of climate change and the responses to it. Carbon Brief had to trawl a long way back in the archives to find any comments from Theresa May herself on the subject of climate change, but they found some eventually and at least she’s not a climate sceptic.
On the leadership front, climate action looks more likely with this new cabinet that it did with Cameron and friends, with or without the DECC. Perhaps there’s no need to mourn it. With the enormous challenge of extricating ourselves from the EU high on the agenda, and coping with a likely economic downturn right next to it, whether anyone actually gets around to discussing the climate is another matter. It’s going to be up to the rest of us, just at it was before, to make sure it doesn’t get forgotten.