The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero: a step forward or just smoke and mirrors?
by Grace Gbadamosi, Intern
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle in February saw the creation of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) out of a severely bloated Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). However, with other departments dominating the spotlight, little has been heard from the fledgling department, tasked with such an important remit, since its initial formation just a short time ago.
Promisingly, DESNZ has stated that one of its priority outcomes is ensuring that the UK is on track to meet its legally binding net-zero commitments. Indeed, it seemed hard to imagine with the collection of policy areas collected up under the BEIS banner that net-zero commitments wouldn’t have conflicted with some of the deceased department’s other objectives. Yet, the creation of a new department means very little without concrete action to back it up.
On the surface, the creation of this new department seems like a step in the right direction towards a net-zero future. It reacknowledges the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for a coordinated effort to transition to a low-carbon economy. Upon closer inspection, however, there are initial concerns that need to be addressed.
The Government’s existing record on climate action leaves much to be desired. Despite pledging to net-zero emissions by 2050, the UK is not on track to meet its interim targets, and its policies have been criticized for being inadequate or insufficient. In July 2022, the High Court ruled that the UK Government’s Net-Zero Strategy was unlawful and that the Strategy did not contain the funding levels or detail needed to feasibly align with 2050 net-zero goals, nor with the UK’s interim carbon budgets. The Government were given nine months to amend the Strategy, which now brings us to today, where a massive revision of the UK’s climate strategy is due in a matter of weeks. So, what are we to expect?
After the Spring Budget only last week, the Environmental Audit Committee held a lengthy hearing with the new Secretary of State for DESNZ, Grant Shapps MP, and Ashley Ibbett, the Department’s Director General for Energy Infrastructure. The Committee examined progress against the UK’s net zero targets, progress on hydrogen production strategy, deployment of solar, wind and other renewables amongst other related topics. Some of the hearing was genuinely promising. It was encouraging, for example, to hear about DESNZ’s plans to massively ramp up production of hydrogen – aiming for a gigawatt of hydrogen power by 2025 and 10 gigawatts by 2030. As a clean energy source, hydrogen holds enormous potential in greenhouse gas reduction and thereby mitigating against climate change.
However, for DESNZ to be considered a success, it needs to go beyond positive words on hydrogen. Chris Skidmore’s Net Zero Review drew on the input of over 1,800 individuals and groups to deliver more than 120 recommendations for policy interventions, several of which should be made in 2023. It provides a useful yardstick against which to measure the Government’s progress – or seriousness – in delivering against its net-zero commitments.
For those expecting an easy ride, perhaps think again. Skidmore MP's Net Zero Review found that "the Government's existing approach is not joined-up enough nor ambitious enough to realise the full scale of the social and economic benefits on offer domestically from the transition, nor to ensure the UK's competitiveness on a global stage." The review argues that seizing the opportunity of net zero will require a bolder approach from government, but the current one appears unlikely to adopt its recommendations.
DESNZ has prioritized "seizing the economic benefits of net-zero," including jobs and growth created in emerging industries, implying a willingness to act on Skidmore's recommendations. However, the Government has a history of selectively implementing environment-related reviews, as pointed out by Simon Evans, policy editor at Carbon Brief, who said: "The risk is that ministers cherry-pick the most popular, cheapest, or least disruptive recommendations and ignore the rest, leaving the UK's climate efforts falling short". Such a short-sighted view does the Government no favours because the benefits go beyond just the environment. Likewise, 27% of voters believe the UK should spend more on the environment and climate change, and 49% believe the Government is not currently doing enough to handle climate change. If DESNZ really wants to deliver, here is a readymade delivery map which has actionable ideas ready to go.
The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero could be a significant step towards achieving a net-zero future, but there is work to be done. The Government must ensure that the department has a clear mandate, the resources and autonomy it needs to operate effectively, and that it can reach across other government departments and stakeholders to enforce a coherent and efficient energy policy. Without these reforms, one of the UK’s newest departments may deliver little more than a wish list for a future government to implement.