The UK Government decision to end the Dept of Energy and Climate Change, July 2016

(This article by Philip Kingston, a member of Grandparents for a Safe Earth, is a revised version of ‘Don’t let fear cloud your vision when tackling climate change’, which was published in the Catholic Universe on 29/07/2016).

Does the UK Government decision to end the Department of Energy and Climate Change help or hinder the plight of countries like Zimbabwe?

I recently had the good fortune to spend two days with Katura Gwatinyanya, a CAFOD partner in Zimbabwe who was visiting England and Wales. We discussed the impact of Climate Change there and he described how the normal pattern of a 5 month rainy season had halved in recent years. He added that rainfall had become unpredictable, with heavy downpours followed by several weeks of drought. This year’s crop failure has been particularly devastating. I asked how the people were managing and he said ‘’they are going hungry’’. Those few words stopped me short. They hardly begin to convey the suffering which they represent.

This serious change in weather in Zimbabwe is part of a worldwide pattern which tragically is at its most extreme in the Tropics where about two-thirds of the poorest people live. The scientific consensus is clear that these changes are occurring with less than a 1 degree Centigrade increase in temperature and that the principal cause is human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. The scientific consensus is also clear that with the current promises of governments worldwide to reduce emissions, the Earth is on track to increase in temperature by at least 2.7 degrees Centigrade by 2100. The consequences of this for the people of Zimbabwe and elsewhere hardly bear thinking about; but think we must if the predicted suffering and death is to be partly prevented by effective action here.

Let’s acknowledge immediately that thinking about an issue of this magnitude is very difficult for most of us to do. Feelings of fear and helplessness are natural aspects of our humanity when we experience being overwhelmed by the immensity and urgency of this problem. If this connects with you, you are in good company because it seems that many politicians and business leaders experience this too. Just 2 days after my time with Takura, our Government closed down the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change. This Department was set up following the passing of the Climate Change Act in 2008, one of the most forward-looking pieces of legislation in the world. The Department not only gave climate change a high public profile but ensured that it became a required focus within the Cabinet. That prominence has now gone. Although climate change is now a responsibility of the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) it does not figure in its title.

What are we in the UK now facing with this change in Government policy? In his first public statement, Greg Clark, the new Minister for BEIS, said: “I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading Government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change.” What does tackling climate change mean when it comes at the end of a list featuring industry, business, science and energy and doesn’t even appear in the title of the Department? In the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change, climate change was already the poor relation of energy as evidenced by the behaviour of Government in the first 5 months of this Parliament. 13 policies were ended or amended, or new ones introduced during that time, each of which had the effect of more fossil-fuels being taken out of the ground. E.g. new onshore wind farms were removed from a subsidy scheme a year earlier than planned, budget changes reduced th e incentive to buy low-emission vehicles, andthe plan for new homes to be zero-carbon was ended.

Mr. Clark’s reference to clean energy may at first glance appear to give hope for preventing climate change. Unfortunately the description of ‘clean’ doesn’t fit with the Government’s commitment to increasing the production of gas, a fuel which cannot be classed as low carbon. Whilst it is lower carbon than coal, it is very high carbon when compared with renewables.

Major NGOs concerned with climate change were unanimous in criticising the decision to end DECC. Perhaps more telling is that the chair of the Parliamentary Energy and Climate Change committee, Angus MacNeil MP, accused the government of damaging investor confidence in the country’s £40 billion low carbon sector, stating that he was ‘’astonished at the Prime Minister’s decision to abolish DECC”.

It is vital to state that the overuse and destruction the Earth has a much wider ambit than climate change. Research by scientists who study Planetary Boundaries (those ecosystems which have given the Earth remarkable stability during the development of current life-forms) state in the journal Science in January 2015, that climate change is only one of four planetary boundaries which have already been broken. The others are ‘’the extinction rate; deforestation; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean”. And according to research by the World Wildlife Fund, the current human population is using the Earth as though we have one and a half planets.  Their ‘Living Planet Report 2014’ states ‘’We are using nature’s gifts as if we had more than just one Earth at our disposal. By taking more from our ecosystems and natural processes than can be replenished, we are jeopardizing our very future’’. This last phrase is especially disturbing to grandparents and elders who are concerned for the security of future generations.

What can we do here to help people in countries like Zimbabwe? First, to reflect upon the ways in which climate change and other aspects of environmental destruction are harming the world of nature, the poorest peoples and the generations who follow us. Second, to consider the ways in which the current economic model is promoting this harm. Third, to acknowledge the enormity of the task which faces the human race if these destructive trends are to be turned around. Fourth, to recognise that the problems are such that it is only through cooperation within and between countries on an unprecedented scale that positive change will occur. Central to the effectiveness of this cooperation is engaging with politicians of all hues. It is therefore vital that climate change and these other major concerns are firmly on our agendas for ongoing discussions with them. Registering Takura’s words in our hearts may encourage us to both live more simply and to take this essential political action.