Farewell to DECC: What does its closure mean for the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change?

In among all the recent political developments, it may have been easy to miss that the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) became the latest fatality of the Cabinet reshuffle. DECC has been folded into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), to now become the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Removing “climate change” from the Department’s title sends out a foreboding message about the government’s commitment to combating global warming. Yet, we might also ask what is really in a name and does this actually mean a major setback for the fight against climate change?

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which brings together major health organisations, such as the Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, Nurses and Physicians, recognises that climate change is also major health issue, with the impacts of flooding and heatwaves on health already being felt in the UK. Therefore, the demise of DECC is a concern to the Alliance as to whether climate change will remain a priority for the government and if BEIS is capable of tackling the issue with the same urgency. The closure of DECC has received varied responses, with former Labour leader Ed Miliband stating that it is “just plain stupid.” Friends of the Earth CEO Craig Bennett commented that it is “shocking news. 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.” However, Gregory Barker the former Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, commented that bringing climate change “under the same roof as whole economy makes huge sense.”

It has been said before that DECC was somewhat of a minnow in departmental terms. Therefore, this merger might mean that climate change will be politically elevated. Innovation of the clean energy market does, in many ways, underpin efforts to tackle climate change. Combining climate change and energy with business and industry strategy does go some way to recognise this and values the opportunities to economic growth that tackling climate change can bring. Furthermore, the UK Health Alliance has argued for a greater cohesion from departments in tackling climate change, particularly in order to ensure that policies deliver on health. This merger demonstrates the recognition that climate change must be tackled across all sectors.

It remains unknown how this newly formed department will proceed. However, the recently appointed Secretary of State for the department, Greg Clark, does offer some reassurance as he has a solid track record of tackling climate change. How BEIS proceeds and the urgency with which it tackles climate change will be an indicator more generally of the post-Brexit government, especially as climate denial and euroscepticism have typically gone hand-in-hand.

The watering down of climate policies, as perhaps the loss of “climate change” from BEIS’s title might forewarn, could be an indicator of a stronger grip on the government by Brexiteers. However, despite the extent to which environmental regulation could be lost as a result of the vote to leave, the Climate Change Act will continue to bind the UK to cut its greenhouse gas emissions through to 2050. Delivering on its promise to phase-out coal will be a significant indicator that tackling climate change remains a priority for the government. Burning coal is immensely harmful to health and is responsible for 1,600 premature deaths each year in the UK.  Following through on ending the use of coal will be one way that the government can signal to the rest of the world that, despite the closure of DECC and leaving the EU, the UK will remain an international leader in tackling climate change.

Sophia David, Policy and Communications Officer, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

Competing interests: None declared.