UK: Climate change department axed as new PM stamps authority

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Of the questionable appointments and decisions already made by new British Prime Minister Theresa May since she entered Number 10 on Wednesday, the scrapping of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) ranks among the most worrying, critics have said.

One of the new PM’s first acts was to fold DECC – which had primarily been concerned with supporting renewable energy and improving energy efficiency – into a wider Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, with former shadow energy secretary Greg Clark appointed as Secretary of State for the department.

And while Clark’s appointment was welcomed by the Renewable Energy Association (REA) – which remarked that he displayed “real vision as Shadow Energy Secretary and we look forward to working with him once again in order to get things moving on the deployment of new renewable energy infrastructure” – other green campaigners and experts have been critical of the move.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called the decision to scrap DECC "deeply worrying", adding that the government appears to be treating the very real threat of climate change as "an afterthought".

"To throw climate change into the basement of another Whitehall department looks like a serious backward step," Lucas said.

Greenpeace’s executive director John Sauven also expressed his dismay at the decision, and was particularly scathing of the Conservative government’s affiliation with climate skeptics and lack of understanding of the threat posed by climate change.

"If we are to continue to have a key global role in environmental action, we need urgent reassurance from the new government that the hard-won progress on climate and renewables targets, air pollution and the protection of wildlife will not be sidelined or abandoned in the Brexit negotiations."

DECC was far from immune from criticism during the department’s tenure, but many of the policy changes enacted over the past few years were decisions taken at a higher level in government, with DECC often having to scrap for more funds and stability as MPs sought to scale back support for renewables, solar in particular.

In a further blow to the U.K.’s green energy sector, former Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom – who was a short-lived rival for PM against May last week – has been appointed Environmental Secretary. Leadsom is understood to be skeptical of climate change and largely in thrall to the coal industry.

"Nothing is changing"

Unmoved by the intensity of the reaction to May’s decision to scrap DECC, a spokesperson for the department told British newspaper The Independent that "nothing is changing".

"The commitment to dealing with climate change is still there," the statement continued. Head of the new department Greg Clark said: "I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy, and tackling climate change."

However, with climate change tacked on to the end of Clark’s statement, environmental economist at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) Stephen Devlin worries that this is a new era of "de-prioritization" for clean energy.

"Tackling climate change is an era-defining challenge that must direct and determine what industries we develop, what transport infrastructure we construct, how we manage our land, and what our diet looks like," Devlin said.

"This reshuffle risks dropping climate change from the policy agenda altogether – a staggering act of negligence for which we will all pay the price."

One crumb of comfort for the U.K.’s renewable energy sector is Clark’s appointment. The MP has a solid track record of tackling climate change, and at least appears to understand the urgency of the matter at hand. He is also an advocate for renewables, stating in 2009 when he was shadow energy secretary: "Policies to decarbonizes the U.K. economy should never be treated as some sort of sideshow or distraction. Nor should they be seen as an irrelevance during a time of economic downturn.

"Green policies do a lot more than protect our environment; they create immediate new jobs in construction, manufacturing and services, they reduce energy bills through greater efficiency and they will help reduce our balance of payments deficit in the longer term by reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels."

Commenting on Clark’s appointment, the Solar Trade Association’s (STA) CEO Paul Barwell said: "We’re pleased to welcome Greg Clark as the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and look forward to working constructively with him over the coming weeks and months to develop a clear industrial strategy and policy roadmap for the solar industry."

However, on the merge of DECC with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, Barwell added: "It is a great shame that a department directly focused on the critical issues of energy and climate change is to close, but a joined up business, industrial strategy and energy approach could provide huge opportunities for solar in the U.K., as can be seen in many countries across the world."