Cabinet Reshuffles Won’t Fix this Government’s Net Zero Failures
Thomas Perrett looks at the Whitehall changes over environmental policy, and sees a lot of deckchairs being re-arranged which fail to address the climate emergency
The Government has disbanded the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), creating a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) which will address the net zero transition.
According to the Government, the new Department, which will be led by former BEIS secretary Grant Shapps, is dedicated to “securing our long-term energy supply, bringing down bills and halving inflation”.
Meanwhile, two other departments have been created; former Conservative leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch leads the Department for Business and Trade, while a new Department for Science and Technology has also been formed.
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The formation of DESNZ comes as a critical juncture for British climate policy; last month, MP Chris Skidmore published a critical Net Zero review which warned that a lack of clarity around the details of the government’s climate change policy commitments could pose “significant risks” to its strategy. In addition, the government is due to respond next month to allegations that its net zero strategy lacks sufficient detail. Several environmental groups and NGOs including ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth have accused the government of failing to adequately explain how it intends to meet its obligations under the 2008 Climate Change Act.
While proponents of DESNZ believe that it will enable the government to focus on updating and strengthening the country’s approach to decarbonisation, unencumbered by the influence of larger departments, environmental campaign groups and NGOs have argued that a small department will lack the political authority to influence the Treasury, a feature of larger departments. Matthew Paterson, Professor of International Politics at The University of Manchester told Edie that: “while it might now look like climate change has a higher profile in government, with net-zero in the title, it does not guarantee that it will be an immediate priority”.
“It’s worth bearing in mind that Grant Shapps has a somewhat mixed record when it comes to climate action,” he added.
A Dubious Climate Policy Record
Shapps, now a central figure in the government’s efforts to address net zero, has generally voted against policies intended to address climate change. According to the website They Work For You. In 2021, he voted against incorporating the 2050 net zero target into the initial “core mission” of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. Shapps also led the Department for Transport during the publication of its ‘Jet Zero’ strategy last year, which was criticised by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), a nonprofit which tracks aviation emissions, for its “minimal and flaky” policy measures.
Carl Hewitt, Policy Director at AEF, argued that “the Government is relying on technological breakthroughs from industry while allowing for continued growth,” adding: “But some of these plans just don’t add up. For example, to make enough synthetic e-fuel to meet the existing jet fuel demand from the UK aviation sector would require an offshore wind farm the size of Northern Ireland”.
Last week, a report released by the Royal Society further excoriated the ‘Jet Zero’ strategy, claiming that the government would have to devote half its farmland or double its renewable electricity production to produce enough sustainable aviation fuel to meet its ambitions for “guilt-free flying”. Synthetic fuels, the report said, would require between five and eight times the current renewable generation capacity.
Meanwhile, Kemi Badenoch has a similarly dubious climate record. During her Conservative leadership candidacy, Badenoch reneged on her previous support for the 2050 net zero target, stating: “I believe there is climate change and that’s something we do need to tackle, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t bankrupt our economy. We’ve got to take people with us. What would happen if we moved it to 2060 or 2070? We’re not going to be here. Let’s be realistic”.
Badenoch also received £1,000 from Michael Hintze, a backer of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), arguably Britain’s most prominent climate science denying organisation, for a ticket to a Conservative fundraising event in November 2021.
“Rearranging the Deckchairs”
Critics have alleged that DESNZ is unlikely to possess the regulatory authority necessary to mobilise the investment in clean energy which is required to divest from fossil fuels. Indeed, addressing the challenges posed by net zero, an economy-wide issue, will require cross-departmental coordination to ensure that the government’s decarbonisation strategy is given adequate attention.
The UK Corporate Leaders Group’s programme director Beverley Cornaby has argued that “the devil will be in the detail with the newly formed government Department for Energy Security and Net-Zero”. “A key question is whether a relatively small, more narrowly focused department will have the clout it needs to drive climate, nature and net-zero perspectives through all government activity,” she added.
Moreover, concerns have mounted that a small government department will be unable to deliver a cohesive approach to energy policy which minimises non-energy emissions; the net zero strategy pursued by DESNZ will be tasked with ensuring that sectors such as agriculture, responsible for around 12% of UK emissions, and transport, which accounted for 23% of emissions in 2021, are on track to meet climate obligations.
According to a report published by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) back in June, which drew attention to the “scant progress” made by ministers in delivering net zero targets, the government has relied too heavily on the adoption of new technologies and improvements to productivity in these sectors, many of which “remain largely short-term and incomplete across the UK”. The CCC concluded that the Net Zero strategy contained “warm words but little progress”.
Rectifying the Government’s net zero strategy will likely require compelling The Treasury, an institution notoriously hostile to the long-term investment necessary to undertake the net zero transition, to play an influential role in decarbonising the economy. Whether DESNZ can accomplish this is uncertain; back in 2019, think tank Common Wealth published a report which argued that the Treasury’s approach to environmental objectives “tends to lean away from the longer-term, and certainly away from objectives that lie outside the narrow confines of pure neoclassical economics, productivity and growth chief amongst them”.
“The Treasury’s desire to chase short-term cost-savings here directly works against any long-term ambitions it might have to deliver towards environmental goals, even where the government has specifically set objectives (most notably in the carbon budgets) to achieve those goals,” the report argued.
Indeed, Shadow Climate Secretary Ed Miliband described the formation of DESNZ as an inadequate administrative procedure, unable to counteract government institutions’ endemic hostility towards net zero obligations. Miliband referred to DESNZ as “a rearranging of deckchairs on the sinking Titanic of failed Conservative energy policy,” arguing that “Britain’s energy bills are too high and our system too weak because of years of disastrous decisions”.
The impact that DESNZ is likely to have has been widely disputed; although a cabinet office dedicated specifically to addressing decarbonisation may allow a stricter focus on climate change, a small department, which lacks the decision-making authority conferred by BEIS, may find itself incapable of spearheading the net zero transition. DESNZ, which has been tasked with addressing a crucial issue in the country’s economic and technological development, will have to reverse years of stagnant energy policy if it hopes to outline an effective approach to net zero.