Will Theresa May's new heavyweight Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy put climate change centre stage?

| 19th July 2016
Rising from the ashes of the scraped DECC is a new department that has the potential to really put the climate agenda at the very heart of Government.
At first glance the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) tolled a death knell for UK action on global warming. However, rising from the ashes is a new department that has the potential to put the climate agenda at the very heart of Government.
For years green groups have called for climate action to be baked into the core of Government policy, rather than operate in a kind of advisory capacity on the fringes. They may finally have their wish

For people worried about British efforts to tackle climate change, reading the reports of Theresa May's reorganisation of Whitehall would have sent a shiver down the spine.  On the face of it, losing a dedicated department with ‘climate change' in its title doesn't bode well. But despite the great work achieved by DECC, its narrow remit sometimes meant it lost out to more powerful departments such as the Treasury. DECC's limited scope meant that it perhaps didn't have the impact required on central Government decisions crucial for turning our climate ambitions into reality.

A more optimistic view is that its replacement may be able to change all that. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has the potential to be a true heavyweight. (Such is its ‘big beast' status perhaps the shorthand term for it could be BEISt). Combining all the functions of DECC as well some from the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), it will have a powerful role in determining the shape of the nation's economy and infrastructure.  Such will be its importance in leading the economic recovery of Britain, the Spectator has suggested it may even rival the Treasury itself in terms of financial muscle and influence.

Crucially, leading it will be Secretary of State, Greg Clark, one of the most green-minded of all the Conservatives, who spent a number of years as Shadow DECC minister. Born in Middlesbrough, Clark married his wife Helen in a charity hostel for homeless women, for which he is a trustee. He is on record as promoting the benefits of the green economy, has raised concerns about coal burning and bemoaned the fact that British homes are some of the least energy efficient in Europe. In 2009 he witnessed the impacts of climate change first-hand when visiting Bangladesh with Christian Aid (the video can be watched here).

Joining Clark at BEISt will be a number of other ‘green Tories'; junior minister Nick Hurd, the former Co-Chair of the Conservative Environment Network and advocate of African renewable energy in his previous role at DFID, Margot James, who worked to promote the Green Deal energy efficiency scheme and Jesse Norman.

Adding to this cautious optimism is the appointment of Philip Hammond as Chancellor. As Foreign Secretary he set out the grave challenges of climate change as well as the opportunities of greening the UK economy. "Many of the losses caused by climate change could be irreversible, regardless of our resources," he told the climate sceptic American Enterprise Institute last year. "Unchecked climate change, even under the most likely scenario, could have catastrophic consequences - a rise in global temperatures ...leading in turn, to rising sea levels, huge movements of people fuelling conflict and instability, pressure on resources, and a multitude of new risks to global public health."

The departure of George Osborne as Chancellor has also seen Theresa May dispense with his fiscal targets, to be replaced with a more investment focused approach. Former BIS Secretary Savid Javid has suggested a £100 billion investment fund be used to overhaul and improve the nation's infrastructure. If such funding is channeled through Greg Clark's department, there could be a chance for a wave of sustainable infrastructure investment to transform the British economy.  

The potential has already been spotted by some: The climate economist Lord Stern said he was happy with the change and WWF has said the new department could be a "real powerhouse for change" if climate change was "hardwired" into it.

But this potential still needs to be delivered. The loss of DECC's dedicated climate label has its dangers and it's vital that the Government doesn't backslide on its commitments.

Hopefully this week will see the 5th Carbon Budget agreed. What is needed from this new department, by the end of this year, is a low carbon investment plan which sets out not just the level of ambition but the tangible steps we will take in the UK to reduce emissions in line with these targets.  

Fortunately, hundreds of ‘Speak Up' events will be held across the country in the Autumn (October) at which people can ask their MP what progress has been made on the UK's promised carbon reduction plan - a perfect opportunity to send a message to this new Government. 

For years green groups have called for climate action to be baked into the core of Government policy, rather than operate in a kind of advisory capacity on the fringes. They may finally have their wish.

There is still much to do, but the death of the UK's climate change ambition may have been greatly exaggerated.

 This Author

Joe Ware is a journalist and 'New Voices' writer for The Ecologist. He can be found on twitter at @wareisjoe. To find out more about the Speak Up events visit this link.



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