What Will the Brexit Shakeup Mean for UK Climate Policy?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - The vote to exit the EU has certainly shaken things up in Britain. No one can say where this decision will eventually lead. One question on many peoples’ minds is what will the implications be on climate change?

Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, acted on her very first day to change the title of the former Department of Energy and Climate Change into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. That was obviously a change she considered important. But what does it mean exactly?

The initial reaction among environmental groups was near-panic. Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth UK, said, “This 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.”

Politically, the move was not well liked, either. According to BBC News, Ed Miliband, a former Climate and Energy Secretary and ex-Labour leader, tweeted: "DECC abolition just plain stupid. Climate not even mentioned in new dept title. Matters because depts shape priorities shape outcomes."

Furthermore, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called the move "deeply worrying." She considered the move to be downgrading the issue by throwing it “into the basement of another Whitehall department,” as opposed to giving it a seat “at the Cabinet table.”

On the surface, the name change could be interpreted as re-conceptualizing the question of climate change from a “what” to a “how.” It suggests that the response to the climate issue lies in the way that business, energy, and industrial strategy are carried out, while integrating it with various other concerns.

Combining business and energy, which is a new structure, could provide leverage on the issue. But that, in itself, does not answer the real question, which is, what priority will the issue now be given?

The man May put in charge of the new department, Greg Clark, was formerly Communities and Local Government Secretary. As such, he did not have much to say on the record about climate change. However, back in 2008-10, when the Conservatives were the opposition party, Clark was the shadow secretary for energy and climate change. In that role he made a number of public comments that exhibited a firm grasp of the issue and a commitment to action.

For example, in 2009 Clark said, “Advances in climate science mean that we have an increasingly good idea of what the most likely outcome is for a particular level of carbon in the atmosphere – and, on current trends, this would be bad enough. Yet, we can’t overlook the fact that these represent midrange estimates… meaning that the worst that could happen is really very bad indeed.”

Perhaps more pertinent to his new post, he had the following to say about climate and the economy. “Policies to decarbonise the UK 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. We should be using the downturn to make this conversion to a more resilient economy, not putting the problem off again until the next unsustainable boom turns to bust.”

Those should be encouraging words to those concerned about climate change. Also optimistic was Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. According to Black, Clark “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."

It remains to be seen whether, in fact, climate change becomes, “a sideshow,” in the months ahead, or if Clark can manage to bring it into an energy-efficient spotlight.

Image credit: flowcomm: Flickr Creative Commons