by Frank Geels and Victoria Johnson.
Within weeks of the newly elected Conservative government coming into power, the down-scaling of low-carbon policies began. The Green Deal, binned earlier this week, is the latest victim of the post-election cull which has seen the end of a further 8 green policies. Commitments to renewable energy and climate change targets are unravelling before our eyes. The recent downscaling of climate change policies is, however, the culmination of a long-standing political struggle between DECC and the Treasury.
Since the creation of DECC in 2008, the Treasury has been embroiled in a battle for policy control over energy and climate; areas formerly located within the Department of Trade and Industry after the disbanding of the Department of Energy in 1992. And, austerity in the face of the financial crisis provided the Treasury with the perfect opportunity, on the basis of cost, to contain green ambitions.
At the 2011 Conservative Party conference, Chancellor George Osborne had already begun to argue green policies were ‘piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies’ and might put the country ‘out of business’. Osborne further argued that the UK’s post-2020 carbon targets should be subject to review, pledging UK carbon emissions should not be cut faster than European neighbours.
By the autumn of 2013, the cost of green policies had escalated into a full-scale political row over rising consumer bills. Although the debate initially focused on market dominance and pricing policies of energy utility companies, the government and energy companies were successful in reorienting the debate towards green levies and energy-efficiency programs. These were subsequently scrapped, delayed or watered down in exchange for utility companies promising to cut energy bills by £50.
Recent policy announcements should, therefore, be seen as part of a longer political trend, partly driven by the right-wing of the Conservative party, partly by the Treasury. No longer constrained by the Liberal Democrats, the new government has been able to continue this trend with new might.
Our own suspicion is that this down-scaling is part of a deal between Cameron, who intends to step down as PM before the next election, and Osborne who hopes to become the new PM. While Amber Rudd, new DECC Minister, is left with the difficult task of explaining these policy changes, which make little sense for long-term climate policy.
Despite all this, the government is still likely to meet its target of 15 % final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. This is due to the momentum of deployment and investment plans that are in the pipeline. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the government has limited post-2020 climate change ambitions, disregarding repeated calls for this by the Committee on Climate Change.
During the Coalition years, DECC openly referred to a renewable electricity target of 30% by 2020, with further decarbonisaiton to be achieved with CCS and nuclear power. Both CCS and nuclear power have progressed much more slowly than anticipated. It would come as no great surprise, then, if in a few years’ time, the government uses this low-carbon under-delivery to force a debate about the Climate Change Act, arguing that climate change targets are unfeasible and that the Climate Change Act needs to be removed or watered down.
Recent policy announcements could, therefore, turn out to be the first official moves in the ‘long game’ that the Chancellor is playing.
This blog draws on two of Frank’s recent publications
Geels, F.W (2015) ‘The arduous transition to low-carbon energy: A multi-level analysis of renewable electricity niches and resilient regimes’, in: Fagerberg, J., Laestadius, S. and Martin, B.R (Eds). The Triple Challenge for Europe: Economic Development, Climate Change, and Governance, Oxford University Press, .
Frank Geels (Co-Director of CIED) is Professor of System Innovation and Sustainability at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester and chairman of the international Sustainability Transitions Research Network. Frank is a world-leading scholar on socio-technical transitions and has published six books and more than forty peer-reviewed articles in this area, many of which are highly cited. Geels has extensive experience in research management, acting as PI on a prestigious ERC-funded project (‘Destabilisation of sociotechnical regimes as the key to transitions towards sustainability’, 2008-2012), a project funded by the Dutch TransForum programme (‘Historical and future transitions in agriculture and food’, 2007-2008), and a project funded by the Dutch Knowledge Network on System Innovation (‘Historical Transition Pathways’, 2004-2007). Geels has acted as consultant for DEFRA (two reports on sustainability transitions), The World Wildlife Fund (which has adopted his multi-level perspective to structure their strategic thinking), the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (which adopted transition management in the energy sector), and Dutch practitioners working ‘on transition projects.
Victoria Johnson is Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI), University of Manchester and Researcher in CIED. She is an experienced interdisciplinary and widely published researcher in the fields of climate change and energy policy at the domestic and international level. To date, she has led or contributed over 35 policy-relevant publications in these fields. Her principal research interests relate to the mechanisms and societal implications of socio-technical transitions across a range of spatial scales with a particular reference to power, agency, social justice and international development. Based at the SCI, she is primarily comparing patterns of diffusion of low-energy technologies (district heating, light-rail networks, and Passivhaus) in the UK with other European countries. Victoria joined the SCI and CIED in September 2014 from the Low Carbon Research Institute of Wales, based at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University. Here her work focussed historical transitions in the UK energy sector and institutional transformation necessary for distributed low-carbon electricity generation in the UK. Between 2007 and 2012 Victoria led the research programme on climate change and energy policy at leading independent think tank, NEF (New Economics Foundation). She holds a PhD in Atmospheric Physics from Imperial College, a MSc (awarded with distinction) in Climate Change and a BSc in Environmental Sciences, both from the University of East Anglia.Follow Sussex Energy Group