Over the course of 13 and 14 July 2016, UK’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, appointed the Secretaries of State who will lead the various Departments of Government. By the end of the process, which was precipitated by the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU, the Cabinet had gained two new Secretaries of State (for “Exiting the European Union” and “International Trade”). At the same time, the position of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change had been abolished, along with the Department which its holder led (DECC). To anyone with a professional interest in energy and climate change policy, this will likely have felt like a backward step. If nothing else, as pointed out by Angus MacNeill, Chair of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, it raises some important questions which will need to be answered quickly.
It is, of course, far too early to judge the new Government’s approach to any issue. After a period of several months in which relatively little in the way of major policy emerged from DECC (no doubt partly because of pre-referendum stasis), there will be a temptation to fall on anything that the Ministers newly appointed to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) say in the next few weeks for clues about the future direction of energy and climate change policy – and possibly over-interpret them. The new regime should be judged on its record rather than its name.
In practical terms, it was probably not feasible for an incoming Prime Minister to create two new Secretary of State posts without losing at least one existing one to compensate – and the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has lost a significant chunk of its previous responsibilities (higher education, and, presumably, at least some of international trade), so may have needed some additional bulk. Historically, the energy portfolio has had its own Department within Government for over 50 of the last 100 years (variously as the Ministry of Power, 1942-1969; the Department of Energy, 1974-1992; and DECC, 2008-2016). Otherwise (apart from a very brief period in the Ministry of Technology), it has been in the Board of Trade and its successors, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Business, Energy and Regulatory Reform – and now BEIS. If one looks to international comparisons, practice varies: Germany has a Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy; Denmark has a Ministry of Energy, Utilities and Climate; in Italy, energy is a matter for the Ministry of Economic Development. At EU level of course, DG Energy is very much a Directorate-General in its own right: energy has been a key policy area for the EU and its precursors and it will be an important element in both Brexit negotiations and international discussions about post-Brexit trade arrangements with the EU and others.
One thing that distinguishes the new configuration from those other occasions when “energy” has not had its own UK Department, is that on this occasion it does at least feature in the name of the Department that is responsible for it. It will undoubtedly form a significant part of BEIS’s business. It is true that “climate change” has lost some profile, but it is also noticeable, if one looks at the DECC organogram, that very few DECC teams could be said to have had an exclusively climate change focus (in any case, when DECC was originally created, only those Defra staff working on climate change mitigation joined the new Department: those working on climate change adaptation remained behind). Arguably one of the achievements of DECC (and the period of policy formation that immediately preceded it) was to make climate change considerations part of the mainstream of energy policy-making. The optimistic view would be that with the Climate Change Act 2008 – and its system of carbon budgets, based on work by the independent experts of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – well entrenched, there is less need for the symbolism inherent in the name of DECC. One might also add, more cynically, that there was more than one occasion when having responsibility for climate change policy did not stop DECC Ministers from choosing the “less green” option.
But on a more positive note, there are clearly potential advantages in having “business”, “energy” and “industrial strategy” in the same Department. As the CCC’s Report on the Fifth Carbon Budget made clear, if we are to achieve the kind of reductions in carbon emissions that we need in order to meet the overall goals of the Climate Change Act, not to mention contributing a fair share to the achievement of the aims of the CoP21 Paris Agreement of December 2015, we will need to go a long way beyond the task of decarbonising the electricity generation sector (admittedly still work-in-progress though that is). There is a lot to be done in relation to heat and transport, for example, and the challenges are formidable. Some of this is very much to do with industrial energy use, and having one Department, rather than two, focusing on this area could well make a positive difference (given the inevitable friction that exists between all public sector bodies with shared interests). Maybe it is even not too much to hope, in this context, that the new Government may revisit the decision to abandon large-scale sponsorship of carbon capture and storage, which is thought by many to have more to offer in a wider industrial context than it necessarily does purely in the electricity generation sector. At the same time, a Secretary of State for BEIS (Greg Clark) who has come from the Department of Communities and Local Government may be an asset at a time when it is also becoming clear that some aspects of the development of new energy infrastructure are best considered locally, at least within cities. And “industrial strategy” – unclear as yet though it is what this will involve – could also have a mutually beneficial intra-Departmental relationship with “energy”. Finally, given that it is only seven years since DECC was partly carved out of one of BEIS’s predecessors, it is to be hoped that this change in the machinery of Government can be accomplished without distracting ex-DECC management too much from the policy agenda (now, of course, supplemented by Brexit).
In the post-Brexit world, nothing is necessarily what it seems. Any or all of the above speculation may be naïve or misguided. The new Department should be watched carefully, but today, objectively and at a policy level, it is far too early to say whether (or how much) we should mourn the passing of DECC.