Nicely done- “The continuing failure of UK climate change mitigation policy” (article 3 of 10)

So, full disclosure, I know the author of this piece, and mostly get on with him (we disagree over the likely effectiveness of Extinction Rebellion, but so what). The piece is good.

It “focuses on the UK government’s policies on mitigation. It evaluates the shifts in approach to climate change since 1992, lists the various policies involved, comments on the Committee on Climate Change’s increasingly outspoken attempts to hold the government to account, and discusses the main areas of policy where more urgent action is required.” (Somerville, 2020: 629) 

He argues (cogently) that

“UK governmental approaches to climate change have been consistently characterised by failure to meet their own specified aims and targets and complacency in the face of this failure (Ray et al., 2007; Martin et al., 2012). The main political parties have adopted a largely rhetorical ‘progressive’ green discourse as a means to capture the growing green median vote (Helm, 2010), signifying the emergence of a ‘competitive consensus’ (Carter and Jacobs, 2014: 137). Policy approaches to climate change have been confused and incoherent, variously emphasising four ‘storylines’: the need for technological innovation in energy generation, reducing energy demand, pricing carbon, and playing down the UK’s responsibilities in this policy area (Lovell et al, 2009). None of these approaches challenges the incumbent fossil-fuel and extractive capitalism that is primarily responsible for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, not just in UK (Brown and Spiegel, 2017; Monbiot, 2019) but throughout the world (Curtis, 2018; Oberle et al, 2019) ” (Somerville, 2020: 629-30) 

There’s a good short history here

“From 2001 to 2011, the policy paradigm shifted away from the promarket orientation that had existed at least since 1992 and towards greater state intervention, involving legal obligations on electricity suppliers to source their electricity from renewable energy and placing more emphasis on energy security (Kern et al., 2014). This shift was at least partially due to the failure of the market-oriented approach to deliver emission reductions (Kern et al., 2014: 520–521) (for example, in the creation of a carbon market by the European Emissions Trading Scheme, the price of carbon was set too low to achieve any significant reduction in fossil fuel supply) and possibly also the emergence of climate change as a significant media issue from 2005 (Carter and Jacobs, 2014). The epitome of this new paradigm was the Climate Change Act 2008, which created a new Cabinet-level Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), ” (Somerville, 2020: 630) 

“From 2013 onwards, however, climate change policy moved into reverse, with the abrupt cutting of funding for the Green Deal, the privatisation and later de-greening of the Green Investment Bank, the so-called ‘dash for gas’ (including government support for fracking), incorporating the DECC into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2016, and much else besides (see Table 1). Overall, however, it is not clear that this represents a new paradigm (Martin et al, 2015) ” (Somerville, 2020: 630) 

There are some lovely tables about all the policies, the purposes and fates. And I had not thought about the blame-shifting element around devolvement in quite this way before, and think that there is a lot of mileage in this perspective.

“The Coalition government’s shift away from regulation was accompanied by an attempt to devolve responsibility for managing climate change to the local level (under the Localism Act 2011). This attempt has been argued to amount to a ‘politics of blame-avoidance’ (Bache et al, 2015: 65) that has led to a weakening of the government’s internal control mechanisms since 2010 (Bache et  al, 2015: 80). At the same time, local authorities experienced a drastic cut in their government funding, substantially reducing their capacity to tackle climate change (Lowndes and McCaughie, 2013).”  (Somerville, 2020: 634) 

Somerville is also good on the raw numbers around housing and transport. Here’s stuff on housing-

Heating homes uses almost half of total energy consumed in the UK, and one third of its GHG emissions (DECC, 2013). Over 80% of domestic heating comes from gas boilers, and the government’s preferred low-carbon alternative is heat pumps powered by electricity. However, the Renewable Heat Incentive (currently £16 per tonne) is insufficient to make heat pumps competitive with gas boilers, with uptake declining from 2011 to 2016, recovering only in 2017 but not enough for the technology to be economically viable (Christides, 2018) – arguably, a higher carbon price is required (Chaudry et  al., 2015). Heat pumps have been found to be performing less well than expected and providing little cost saving for users (House of Commons, 2016), and expensive to install (Howard and Bengherbi, 2016: 8, 10 – estimated cost of £200 billion for 80% of UK homes). (Somerville, 2020: 637) 

Housing accounted for 69.1MtCO2e (15%) of UK GHG emissions in 2018, mostly due to heating (DBEIS, 2020). The progress made from 2010 to 2015 has gone into reverse and the failure adequately to retrofit existing homes affects all tenures: private landlords have no incentive to do it, social landlords are not planning sufficiently far ahead (Lupo, 2019a, 2019b), and too few owner-occupiers can afford it  (Somerville, 2020: 638) 

And transport.

Transport accounted for 124.4MtCO2e (28%) of UK GHG emissions in 2018, virtually unchanged since 1990 (DBEIS, 2020). Progress in decarbonising transport in the UK is minimal, with just 0.2% of cars being battery electric, only 1.8% of new car sales in 2017 being ultra-low emission (HMG, 2018a: 13), and (fossil) fuel duty frozen since 2011. Also, with only 36% of its rail tracks being electrified, the UK lags well behind other developed countries, but the government’s latest plan for ‘decarbonising transport’ (DfT, 2020) makes no firm commitment to further electrification. The government continues to give priority to private cars, as evidenced by its proposal (Javid, 2019) to spend £25.3 billion more on new or enlarged major roads from 2020 to 2025 (£27 billion now with the addition of the A303 Stonehenge project)  (Somerville, 2020: 639) 

Again, Somerville is I think too optimistic about the longevity and effectiveness of the protest movement organisations of the last few years, but so what,, this is good analysis, albeit one that blames ideology a bit more than material interests. Worth your time if you’re looking for one clear view of the last 20 years of climate policy in the UK.


Bache I, Bartle I, Flinders M and Marsden G (2015) Blame games and climate change: Accountability, multi-level governance and carbon management. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 17: 64–88. 

Brown B and Spiegel S (2017) Resisting coal: Hydrocarbon politics and assemblages of protest in the UK and Indonesia. Geoforum 85: 101–111. 

Hardt L et al. (2018) Untangling the drivers of energy reduction in the UK productive sectors: Efficiency or offshoring? Applied Energy 223: 124–133. 

Helm D (2010) Government failure, rent-seeking, and capture: The design of climate change policy. Oxford Review of Economic Policy 26(2): 182–196. 

Kern F, Kuzemko C and Mitchell C (2014) Measuring and explaining policy paradigm change: The case of UK energy policy. Policy & Politics 42(4): 513–530. 

One thought on “Nicely done- “The continuing failure of UK climate change mitigation policy” (article 3 of 10)

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  1. Thanks, Marc. I accept your criticism that I blamed ideology a bit more than material interests – but then maybe the ideology (e.g. neoliberalism) is just an expression of those interests (e.g. fossil-fuel capital)?

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