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New Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom visiting Wytch Farm in Dorset; the largest conventional onshore oilfield in Western Europe, with Brian James, General Manager at Perenco UK, 11th November 2015. Photo: DECC via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
New Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom visiting Wytch Farm in Dorset; the largest conventional onshore oilfield in Western Europe, with Brian James, General Manager at Perenco UK, 11th November 2015. Photo: DECC via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
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Dis-May-ed! DECC scrapped, Leadsom to run Environment

Oliver Tickell

14th July 2016

Campaigners fear that the abolition of DECC, the department of energy and climate change, indicates that climate will take a low priority in Theresa May's policy agenda. Meanwhile the pro-fracking, pro-nuclear Andrea Leadsom is in charge of environment department Defra.

Abolishing DECC is a terrible move by our new Prime Minister that risks dropping climate change from the policy agenda - a staggering act of negligence. Theresa May must reaffirm her commitment to the 2008 Climate Change Act.

In one of her first executive acts as Prime Minister Theresa May has abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change, DECC.

Its energy remit will now be amalgamated with business in a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy - a choice of name in which the words 'climate change' are notably absent.

The new Secretary of State at BEIS is to be Greg Clarke, MP for Tunbridge Wells, who was appointed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government following the 2015 general election.

Meanwhile Andrea Leadsom has been rewarded for her timely and highly convenient standing down as a candidate for the Conservative leadership by being appointed Secretary of State in charge of Defra, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Leadsom's promotion - entirely undeserved in terms of her weak performance as energy minister at DECC - has only fuelled suspicion of an expertly executed Tory fix to fast-track the appointment of a new leader while denying the party's membership of their vote.

Fury and incredulity

The abolition of DECC has provoked a furious response from environment campaigners who fear that it wil severely downgrade the status of climate change in government policy making - just two days after the Climate Change Committee published its powerful and outspoken report highlighting the severe risks climate change poses to the UK's national security.

"This is shocking news", said Friends of the Earth CEO Craig Bennett. "Less than a day into the job and it appears that the new Prime Minister has already downgraded action to tackle climate change, one of the biggest threats we face.

"This week the government's own advisors warned of ever growing risks to our businesses, homes and food if we don't do more to cut fossil fuel pollution. If Theresa May supports strong action on climate change, as she's previously said, it's essential that this is made a top priority for the new business and energy department and across government."

Secretary of Stephen Devlin, Environmental Economist at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), described DECC's abolition as "a terrible move by our new Prime Minister" that "signals a troubling de-prioritisation of climate change by this government.

"This reshuffle risks dropping climate change from the policy agenda altogether - a staggering act of negligence for which we will all pay the price. Theresa May must reaffirm her government’s commitment to the 2008 Climate Change Act and reassure businesses and civil society that the targets under the Climate Act are not up for negotiation."

ClientEarth Chief Executive James Thornton was equally dismayed: "At a time when the challenge of climate change becomes ever more pressing, the Government has scrapped the department devoted to tackling it. This is a statement of disregard for one of the most challenging economic, social and environmental issues humans have ever faced. 

"It sends a terrible signal at the worst possible time, undermining efforts to secure a clean, safe energy future. It is now essential that Greg Clark proves the Government's commitment to tackling climate change is undimmed. This decision will otherwise be a source of deep regret in the difficult years ahead."

And what of Leadsom? Badgers, pollution, farming, fishing ...

Andrea Leadsom - resolutely pro-fracking and pro-nuclear at DECC - now finds herself responsible for a number of contentious issues that even highly competent ministers would struggle with. For example, she is now responsible for agriculture and fisheries, both areas in which the EU has considerable powers, just as the UK is negotiating the terms of its exit from the EU.

So its now up to her to set out her alternative vision of farming and fisheries under direct UK control: having campaigned for Brexit it is unthinkable that she would wish to simply perpetuate existing EU policies. And while farmers and landowners will expect the continuation of direct payments to them simply for owning farmland, the public will surely be demanding that the money - some £4 billion a year - be put into underfunded public services like health and education.

Other political hot potatoes that have landed in her lap include the England badger cull, widely derided as cruel, expensive and entirely ineffective at tackling bovine TB; regulation of chemicals and pesticides in a post-EU regulatory framework, including bee-killing neonicotinoids and the controversial herbicide glyphosate; and the problem of bad air quality in UK cities which is causing tens of thousands of premature deaths every year.

"Whatever the outcome of EU negotiations Andrea Leadsom must defend and extend existing nature protections - an early test will be ruling-out the return of bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides that are currently banned by the EU", said Craig Bennett (FoE).
 
"This week a stark official climate change risk assessment report was published: Leadsom must commit to action to protect the UK from worsening flooding and heatwaves. British farming now has to make the case for the public money it receives - we should not be subsidising unsustainable food production or farming practices which fail to protect and preserve Britain's green and pleasant land."

Thornton (ClientEarth) added: "The UK wildlife and countryside protection laws will be at risk when we leave the EU, and Leadsom's first priority must be to pass laws which are as strong, or stronger, than those currently in place. This is essential to protect our precious animals and habitats, and the communities and industries which depend on them.

"Mrs Leadsom should also urgently support our demands for a new Clean Air Act which will protect lives once we leave the EU. The new government must now step up and deal with this public health crisis so that the whole country can breathe cleaner air."

A silver lining for energy policy?

But not all environmentlaists believe that the abolition of DECC is such a disaster for climate and energy policy. Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), sounded an optimistic note on the appointment of the new BEIS Secretary:

"Greg Clark is an excellent appointment. He understands climate change, and has written influential papers on the benefits of Britain developing a low-carbon economy. Importantly, he sees that economic growth and tackling climate change are bedfellows not opponents - and he now has the opportunity to align British industry, energy and climate policy in a way that's never been done before."

He went on to recall that Theresa May had assured Conservative MPs that her government will continue to be an "international leader on climate change": "It would be odd not to continue with that when all the most important new trading partners in our post-Brexit world, such as China, India and the United States, are themselves making massive investments in a clean energy transformation."

The union of energy and business in one department also created could also help to develop the domestic market for green energy, he said: "Creating this new department opens up the exciting option of an innovation and industry strategy that enables companies in the clean energy supply chain, including steel, to expand and thrive together. But they'll need a strong British market.

"Within the last few months, the National Infrastructure Commission and energy industry big cheeses, through Energy UK, have said that the UK should continue building a smart, flexible low-carbon grid - so there's a clear pathway laid out for ministers, and the rationale for following it hasn't changed a bit."

RenewableUK's Chief Executive Hugh McNeal also emphasised the potential opportunities: "We're looking forward to working supportively with Mr Clark in his new role, as we represent industries that can attract inward investment in the UK, and onshore wind offers the cheapest source of new power for Britain.

"The UK will invest over £20bn in wind energy in the next five years. Energy is the big ticket item in British infrastructure spending. Industry is ready to invest and it is vital for our economy that this work continues."

 


 

Oliver Tickell is Contributing Editor at The Ecologist.

 

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