Is it time to give climate policy a new home in government?

sinedd buildingThis post is by Hywel Lloyd, Green Alliance associate and author of A framework for action: next steps for regulatory and policy powers over energy in Wales

Re-energising Wales is an ambitious three year project by the think tank the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA). It will produce a delivery plan in April 2019 for how Wales can meet its projected energy demands entirely from renewable sources by 2035.  Following wide ranging engagement with experts and stakeholders across the UK, IWA published A framework for action: next steps for regulatory and policy powers over energy in Wales, highlighting the need for urgent action. It focuses on specific activities within the legislative purview of the Welsh Government.

A Low Carbon Stimulus for Wales
With Brexit imminent, the study concludes that Wales would benefit from a Low Carbon Stimulus, akin to the Low Carbon Industrial Strategy of 2009.  To operate from January and run over the next 18 months, the stimulus should focus on measures to grow Welsh ownership of renewables; to advance building standards, promoting Homes as Power Stations; deliver 100 per cent coverage for electric and hydrogen re-fuelling across Wales; and to support Wales in gaining a competitive edge on hydrogen and marine energy based energy technologies.

Creating and deploying a Low Carbon Stimulus prompts a further question, that of oversight and control for its measures, and those that might build on it.

Wales has had a cabinet secretary for energy, planning and rural affairs for some time. In the role, Lesley Griffiths has pushed the agenda with ambition, including ensuring that all electricity purchased via the National Procurement Service would be 100 per cent renewable, with 50 per cent of that secured from Welsh generation; a moratorium on fracking in Wales, and targets for 2030 of renewable generation target of 70 per cent of (electricity) consumption; 1GW of renewable energy to be locally owned in Wales, and a wider ambition for local ownership; and a carbon neutral public sector.

One conclusion of our report is that the new first minister (due in post before the year end) should consider a revised cabinet portfolio to unite ‘energy, home, place and community’; these are the areas of delivery over which Wales has greatest powers to act, whatever the state of UK policy or the wider deployment pipeline for large scale renewables.

The UK as a whole needs a better framework for climate change
While we await the outcome of the new first minister’s deliberations on their future cabinet, what can we learn, or adopt from the Welsh experience for the UK tier of governance?  Does the UK as a whole have the right organisational structures in place for policy on energy, renewables and climate change?

From the early 2000s, climate change mitigation and adaptation policy both resided in Defra. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was created in October 2008, giving climate change policy both a higher profile and a stronger link to energy policy.

Even if internal DECC consideration of policies and the trade-offs risked a lack of transparency, and although there was undue focus on electricity over other fuel uses, the bringing together of climate and energy policy in DECC had significant impact. The UK’s electricity generating capacity is now more renewable than not.

In 2016, DECC was disbanded, and merged with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to form the existing Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).  Some argue that, as clean growth and industrial strategy have taken centre stage, climate change mitigation has taken a back seat in this department. Yet the recent IPCC report has reminded us of the urgency of action.

Options to unite climate with other domestic policies
The creation of DECC clearly helped to address the climate change impacts of electricity generation, yet its policy hardly touched the areas of heat and transport. Decarbonising electricity was easier because there were fewer actors, whereas heat and fuel involve everyone who has a home or drives a vehicle. So, how can we unite climate change policy with those policies that govern how energy is used in these difficult to decarbonise sectors?

A Department for Climate Change, Homes, Planning and Local Government would be powerful in engaging local actors in addressing the decarbonisation of heat. It would also support the transition to electric or hydrogen vehicles, given the important role that planning and building standards play in delivering low and no carbon infrastructure.  This, in turn, could have a positive knock-on for adaptation and flood risk management

A Department for Low Carbon Transport would move low and no emissions transport from a niche office (of low emissions vehicles) to a whole transport system view.  This would set off a wide range of debates and policy revisions, not least a move away from predict and provide to something more like predict and protect. It could help UK car makers move faster towards the production of electric vehicles. And it could address air pollution in relation to decisions on major infrastructure such as new runways, roads and railways.

Each of these options would provide a direct connection between policies to mitigate climate change and the domestic activities that they seek to affect.

There is of course one further alternative, to create a powerful Department of Climate Change and the Economy, which with sufficient power around the cabinet table, could address more than one of these challenges at the same time.  This department (a 21st century Department for Economic Affairs) would ramp up the deployment of low carbon technologies as part of a strategic shift to renewables in all parts of the economy, to give us homes as power stations and renewable mobility, as well as renewable energy. Giving it some responsibilities the Treasury currently has would enable it to improve performance across government.

While the Welsh opportunity reflects devolved, yet incomplete powers, a new pan-UK environment settlement is necessary if we are to respond to the urgent challenge of climate change as a nation. That should include looking seriously at the machinery of government and considering reshaping those departments – the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and, above all, the Treasury – that have yet to properly comprehend or own the necessary action – it is time to make it a part of their job.

[Image of the Senedd ceiling by Tim Scotford, Flickr

 

 

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