GB Policy Conservatism – we are in the vicious policy cycle phase
Catherine Mitchell – IGov Team, 15th February 2019
Anyone who has read anything that IGov has produced over the last 6 years knows that we argue that GB energy governance, of which energy policy is one part, is not fit for purpose.
And on this day of striking schoolchildren and students, it increasingly seems to me that it is not just our infrastructure, regulation, policy and markets which are unfit for purpose but the really big problem is that Britain does not seem to be addressing the major energy policy issues related to reducing greenhouse gases emissions of decarbonising electricity by 2030; heat by 2040 and mobility by 2050 (and with these targets already under review for the Paris 1.5 degrees). The ‘big’ questions to answer in order to become net zero by 2050 are: how to deliver a country wide building transformation; what to do about the gas network; what to do about equity and customer protection issues; how to transform to electric vehicles; how to coordinate a decentralised, decarbonised and digitalised energy system; how to connect to people in such a way that they provide meaningful consent to all this change, pay for it, and become part of it in their everyday lives.
There seems to me to be an increasing gap in three areas:
- a gap in the perspective between those who have the ability to do something practical and make a difference – Government, the Regulator and politicians and those who are trying to make those changes happen: the NGOs, the young, some academics etc who want much more change and quicker;
- a gap in what is being argued for and what science tells us we should be arguing for if we are to keep to a 1.5 degree warming world – and this implies a self-constraint by those who argue; and
- a widening gap between the big picture requirements and fundamental goals of a society that keeps policy on track to reflect society’s wishes and the detailed, day to day often siloed policy discussions which take place – which implies that the big picture direction is not transferring to detailed policy implementation, and as a result the latter is becoming more directionless and less stringent than it needs to be.
Hitherto, energy policy making and discussion in GB tends to happen in the centre of a spectrum about any given issue. My position has tended to be in the centre but on the edge of what is considered politically possible and hitherto this has placed me in a ‘progressive but credible’ spot. Whilst I may not have been happy with the speed of change, some change has happened. The problem is that as time has gone on the necessary policy change has not occurred, and the gap between what policy should be doing and is doing is becoming wider.
Just as it becomes harder to reduce the increasing GHG stock in the atmosphere the longer nothing is done about it, so policies have to become tougher the longer policy decisions are put off. Whenever the tough decision is not taken and put off for the future, then that future decision becomes even harder. This blog argues that we in GB have entered this vicious policy cycle (the opposite of the virtuous policy stage) where what we do (a ‘softer’ policy) in effect makes things worse because we do not confront the fundamental issue.
This is also being exacerbated by, in my view, by a shrinking centre of the energy policy spectrum; and a shrinking width of the policy spectrum, in effect making the centre ground more conservative. This appears to be happening in GB because the required policy demanded by the science is deemed too difficult to implement (for multiple reasons) and a ‘softer’ policy is put forward. Mainstream policy discussion clusters around a ‘softer’ policy, and gradually that centre ground moves away from the necessary changes.
That this is happening says something about Britain and innovation, and is part and parcel of a significant problem that Britain has always known it has – the way it tends to take the middle option. This middle way culture occurs for many reasons and is really at the heart of the IGov project but lack of leadership; incumbent influence; and exclusion of voices in decision-making is central to it. Overall though, it is becoming increasingly stark within the very rapidly changing energy world how unfit that cultural mode of decision-making is for keeping up with climate change (and other) needs.
Energy produces about 85% of GB’s GHG. We should be net zero carbon by 2050 and doing that – given the huge technical and digital change which is going on in the energy world – is going to need a very different energy system. So far our policy making world seems unable to grasp the challenges to deliver this.
IGov’s solution to this is an Energy Transformation Committee – this is a parallel body to the CCC. GB needs a body which has the responsibility for delivering the required policies to deliver the energy transformation on time. This requires coordination and bringing society along with them. It also needs to be a cross party supported body, which does not have to worry about changing political cycles.
GB needs to transform from the vicious to a virtuous policy cycle, and to do this we need to broaden our policy spectrum again. The IPCC is clear what we need to do and we have the simple means to do it now – the priority being a roll out of building upgrades across the country, which then makes everything else easier. We need a powerful, democratic process to deliver it. Individually we can argue for the policies we actually need, and we can make our voices heard – as the school children are today. But we also need policy makers to step up, and to listen.