History holds key to future energy policy, says report

Dr Jim Watson

Policymakers should look to history to learn how best to tackle the challenges of a low carbon economy, says a new report co-authored by University of Sussex energy analyst Professor Jim Watson.

The report, UK Energy Policy 1980 – 2010: A history and lessons to be learnt, published today (Weds 25 January 2012), considers whether current policies are far-reaching enough for the UK to meet its carbon budgets and build a low carbon economy.

The report, commissioned by the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies (PGES) and written by leading energy analysts Professor Watson (Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex and Professor Peter Pearson (Director of the Low Carbon Research Institute of Wales, Cardiff University), looks at how past lessons can inform current and future policy.

The report emphasises the need for concerted effort involving government and the public in the drive to an 80 per cent cut in carbon emissions in the UK by 2050.

Starting with the privatisation of the energy market in the 1980s, the authors note how energy issues were increasingly left to market forces and the role of energy in Whitehall and Parliament diminished as it became a small part of one government department.

Now, energy policy has come full circle with energy once again centre stage as the UK grapples with climate change, energy security, affordability, fuel poverty and numerous new technological and societal developments. 

Professor Watson says: “Markets and competition are important – and our history shows some of the hazards of excessive planning and state control, such as the ‘over prediction’ for nuclear power in the 1980s. We emphasise the need to combine top-down targets and policies with incentives for bottom-up action to meet these targets – including by communities, local authorities and households.

“Our work emphasises the need for policy integration – that the low-carbon transition requires co-ordination right across government.  Close co-ordination is required between government and a wide range of public and private sector bodies, utilities, government agencies, voluntary groups and communities.”

Professor Pearson says: “The debate should not be about more or less intervention, but about the kinds of intervention required to meet these goals in a flexible, sustainable and legitimate way.

“It is clear from our history that the UK has been moving away from a pure ‘text book’ model of liberalised energy markets since their creation in the 1980s. Our history illustrates how liberalisation is a process rather than an event, which has been shaped in different ways by the policies of successive governments and the factors that influence them.”

PGES Chair, Iain Liddell-Grainger MP said: "This report is an invaluable contribution to the work of the Group and will be eagerly read by policy makers, academics and engineers wishing to understand the relationship between politics and energy. "


IET Energy Policy Panel chair Professor Simon Harrison says: “The report shows clearly how challenging it is to formulate good energy policy.   Long construction lead times mean that it is easy for good decisions to be overtaken by events before they have had an impact.  Policymakers need to value the lessons identified in responding to the even more complex circumstances of our own time.” 


Notes to Editors: 

  • For details see the full report online 
  • Interviews with both authors are available and can be arranged via the IET Press Office (see contact details below). 
  • The Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies is marking the 30th anniversary of its establishment. 
  • The Institution of Engineering and Technology is Europe’s largest professional body of engineers and is a source of essential engineering intelligence.
  • The Sussex Energy Group undertakes academically rigorous, inter-disciplinary research that engages with policy-makers and practitioners. The aim of its research is to identify ways of achieving the transition to sustainable, low carbon energy systems while addressing other important policy objectives such as energy security.  It has funding from a diverse array of sources. It is core partner in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research  and part of the UK Energy Research Centre.
  • SEG’s director is Professor Jim Watson, who contributed recently to the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium’s multi-institutional report on the UK’s ageing infrastructure system for energy, water, waste, ICT and transport systems. See the ITRC press release for full details.

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University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

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Last updated: Wednesday, 25 January 2012