DECC is dead, long live DECC seems to be the latest message from Whitehall.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change, to give the ministry its full name, was created by the Labour government in 2007 when concerns about global warming last soared up the political agenda.
It survived both Labour’s defeat, when it became one of the Liberal Democrat satrapies within the coalition government, and the Conservatives majority in the 2015 general election, although many of the initiatives championed by the department were culled.
DECC was finally put to sleep a year later when Theresa May replaced David Cameron in No 10.
But speculation is now rife that an energy and climate change department is being reborn, like a phoenix from the ashes, as part of a much wider revamp of the government machine.
Prime minister Boris Johnson is reported to want to create a new super business ministry that would embrace regional development as well as industry. As part of this shake-up, energy and climate change would once again be hived off into its own separate department.
That would reverse the move three years ago, which saw energy and climate change absorbed into the bigger BEIS (business, energy and industrial strategy) department.
Josh Burke, a fellow at the London School of Economics Grantham Institute, admits that he was “quite sceptical” about the move to scrap DECC.
“It looked bad scrapping something with climate change in its name,” says another Utility Week source.
An argument for keeping existing arrangements in place is that it would enable energy to remain part of a department with greater clout across Whitehall.
One of the problems with DECC is that it never had “sufficient firepower”, says Richard Howard, head of research at consultancy Aurora Energy.
BEIS permanent secretary Alex Chisholm refuted the suggestion, when being cross examined during a recent House of Commons select committee hearing, that the shake-up meant less ministerial focus on energy issues.
He told the MPs that three of BEIS’ ministers are involved in shaping energy policy, which had become “mainstreamed” into the department’s wider work on industrial strategy.
BEIS’ most senior official could have added that the department’s two ministers of state for energy have both had the right to attend Cabinet.
Burke says he warmed to the argument for BEIS following the publication of the clean growth strategy in late 2017, which explicitly linked industrial strategy and policies to cut emissions.
“It made it clear that climate change and economic growth weren’t mutually exclusive but were actually a vehicle for growth,” he says.
And rearranging Whitehall’s deck chairs creates a risk of upheaval just at a time when energy policy needs to step up a gear to help deliver more demanding 2050 net zero emissions target.
Many teams could be lifted and shifted into a new department. But the dividing lines are less clear for those more centralised teams that have been integrated, says Howard.
Richard Black, chief executive of the Energy and Climate Information Unit, says: “The first half of next year is crunch time. The UK wants to project an image of global leadership at the UN (COP 26) summit – and to do that, the government needs to get demonstrably on track for its own net zero target well before the summit opens.
“Otherwise their own official advisors – never mind scientists and environment groups, are going to rip that image to shreds.”
But Chris Rumfitt, a former No 10 Downing insider who now runs the public affairs agency Field Consulting, argues that re-establishing a dedicated department is a good move for the broader green agenda. “If we are serious about tackling climate change, having a department dedicated to the issue seems the right thing to do. Hopefully, it will be viewed as one of the top jobs in government.”
Burke argues that the new department, if it is created, should be given a very clear remit around net zero emissions, to the extent that the term should be included in its title.
“It’s ok if the two are delinked but they need to be quite clear about what the best policy fit is for climate and where the synergies are,” he says.
“A net zero ministry would be a good thing as long as it has a clear narrow purpose and mission. A downside of BEIS at the moment is that it doesn’t have that clear narrative and straddles a lot of different policy areas.
“If a climate change department is carved out of that to create a net zero ministry that would be welcome and would give that department a clear focus and vision.”
However much of the work to create a lower carbon future won’t happen within any new DECC but in other departments, such as those responsible for housing and transport, given the urgency surrounding action to tackle emissions from these sources.
Burke says: “Orchestrating government spending so all government investments are aligned with net zero would be a good thing. The problem at the moment is that you don’t have that cross-government collaboration and policy areas fall through the cracks.”
An increasing body of opinion supports greater co-ordination at the heart of government.
A step in this direction was the Cabinet committee on climate change, bringing together key departmental ministers and helmed by Johnson himself, which was announced in the run up the general election.
In his recently published report for the Conservative supporting thinktank Onward, which was published during the general election, Howard argues that this co-ordination should be bolstered by creating a dedicated unit within the Cabinet Office.
“If they recreate DECC, having a group of people very close to the centre of action in the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate across all departments would be good.”
The bones of such an outfit is being created within the Cabinet Office, where the unit that will oversee preparations for next year’s COP 26 climate change summit in Glasgow is housed under former energy minister Claire O’Neill, formerly Perry.
But Howard warns against the risk of “over focusing” on holding a successful summit rather than ensuring that the UK’s own policies are fit for purpose.
“Having a good COP team is not a panacea. The COP team is all about the lead up to the COP. Having a good COP next year doesn’t mean we have a strategy to deliver net zero: one is about global action and the other is about national action.
“We wouldn’t want the COP process or BEIS reorganisation to distract from that.”