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Evidence in energy policy making: What the UK can learn from overseas

The government needs to change how it shapes energy policy – or risk hindering efforts to reach its 2050 net zero target.

The government needs to change how it shapes energy policy ahead of major decisions on the gas grid’s fate, the decarbonisation of homes, and the future of nuclear power – or risk hindering efforts to reach its 2050 net zero target.

This report compares the UK’s approach with Germany, France, the Netherlands and Canada, and finds that the UK government lags behind Germany and the Netherlands in involving outside experts and civil society. 

It says the government should seek more evidence from academic experts, governments abroad, social scientists, consumer groups, independent government agencies and civil society at large. It should also build on the example of the strong German and Dutch systems of independent advisory institutions by expanding the financial resources and remit of existing centres of excellence outside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), such as the Energy Systems Catapult and the UK Energy Research Centre.

BEIS, the lead department for net zero, employs more civil service analysts, with more responsibilities, than many of its international peers. But when looking outside the department, policy makers rely too heavily on a small pool of ‘usual suspects’, often in the energy industry, to inform thinking.

There are success stories in energy policy, with the UK’s position as a world-leader on offshore wind built on long-term support, clear market signals, and innovative mechanisms, like contracts for difference. But poor use of evidence and muddled strategic thinking has produced policy disappointments such as the Green Deal, which failed to stimulate anything like the number of energy efficiency upgrades necessary to get the UK’s housing stock ready for net zero. Many of these difficulties could have been avoided with a more public, consultative policy-making process and better use of evidence.

If the government is to avoid repeating the policy failures of the last decade, we recommend it:

  • Reviews pay and progression to consider how it can reward analysts and policy makers who stay in post and develop expertise in technical and complex markets like energy.
  • Publishes more of the research evidence it produces or commissions, and opens up its energy models to peer scrutiny.
  • Makes consultations and external engagement with experts and civil society more systematic and comprehensive. Passing on a viable network of contacts and experts should be considered a key responsibility for relevant civil servants.
Institute for Government

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