climate change current affairs politics

The return of the climate department?

There was some surprise news in UK politics yesterday. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been reshuffling his ministers and re-ordering some departments. In the process, the idea of a climate department has been brought back from the dead. Grant Shapps will now head up a newly formed Department of Energy Security and Net Zero.

If you remember, the UK was an early pioneer in creating a climate change ministry. The Department of Energy and Climate Change was formed in 2008 under the Labour government. It didn’t live up to its early promise, as David Cameron’s Conservatives were only ever pretending to care about climate change. They cut its already tiny budget by 90% and by the time Theresa May became prime minister in 2016, the pretence was over and she closed down the department on her first day in office. Writing about it at the time, I noted that climate action looked more likely under May’s leadership than Cameron’s, even without a dedicated department. That proved correct, with May bringing in the net zero by 2050 target.

I suspect the logic works the other way round this time – the re-institution of the department is no guarantee of renewed focus on climate. The name is exhibit A, because this isn’t actually a climate change ministry. It’s the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. That’s not being shy about its priorities, and yesterday’s announcement is very clear on that too:

“A new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has been tasked with securing our long-term energy supply, bringing down bills and halving inflation. The move recognises the significant impact rising prices have had on households across the country as a result of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, and the need to secure more energy from domestic nuclear and renewable sources as we seize the opportunities of net zero.”

No mention of climate change in there then. Bringing down bills is an explicit goal and bringing down emissions is not. Halving inflation isn’t the kind of thing you’d expect on the to-do list of a climate ministry, however important it may be. So I don’t expect radical new climate policy coming from what we must presumably abbreviate to DESNZ. This is very much on the Conservative’s own terms and could prove to be largely cosmetic, giving the appearance of action without bringing anything new to the table. I look forward to being wrong about that.

It could be worse of course. There was a brief moment, that hardly seems real now, when Britain’s climate response was in the hands of Jacob Rees Mogg – not exactly a climate denier, but an outspoken opponent of climate action. That was under Liz Truss’s flaming bin fire of a premiership, which saw the country’s net zero plans placed under review and the return of gas fracking.

On the other side of that bizarre episode, I think we’re settling into a new chapter of Conservative thought on the climate. Net zero is established now as the preferred frame of reference for the issue. It’s technical, more to do with technologies than nature or people, more about business opportunity than settling the science. It’s pro-growth, pro-business, and interested in competitive advantage. The defining document may prove to be Chris Skidmore’s Mission Zero report, the review Truss asked for. There is nuance within, but for the benefit of his Conservative colleagues Skidmore highlights the unmissable headline that “net zero is the growth opportunity of the 21st century.”

This will not be enough, but a coherent Conservative platform for net zero might at least bring some stability.

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