The need for a department of climate change is now self-evident

Apr 13, 2022
Yallourn power station Australia 2022
The government needs to have clear policy objectives for mitigation, adaptation, and transition. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The time has come for a powerful government Climate Department to allow strong action on legislating, regulating, and coordinating mitigation, adaptation, and transition.

The science in the IPCC report Climate Change 2022 : Mitigation of Climate Change (Technical Summary) makes clear the failure of the market to date to make serious inroads into the greenhouse gas emissions. It is unrealistic to expect markets, collections of vested interest in search of profits, to deal with threats to the welfare, well being, prosperity and security of citizens. Competition does not facilitate the coordinated action needed to protect the population from the consequences of global warming. The need for a Department of Climate Change is now self-evident.

For any incoming government chapter thirteen of the IPCC report is the most relevant. Here the authors address “institutions and governance that nurture new mitigation policies, while at the same time reconsidering existing policies that support continued Greenhouse Gas (GhG) emissions”. Overlooked because it’s not as sexy as the dramatic science, the 162 page chapter is a crucial contribution.

Institutions reduce the transaction costs of creating and exchanging knowledge and facilitate effective coordination of action. For governments the primary institution is the department. Even for governments that are ideologically inclined to see markets as the most effective, efficient, and lowest cost institutions, the departmental organisation is essential. There is no democratic or autocratic government that has dispensed with departmental organisations.

The report emphasises that “Long-term deep emission reductions, including the reduction of emissions to net zero, is best achieved through institutions and governance”. It is not that the IPCC report is opposed to market-based approaches but it recognises their limitations. The report observes that “carbon pricing is limited in its effect on adoption of higher-cost mitigation options, and where decisions are often not sensitive to price incentives such as in energy efficiency, urban planning, and infrastructure”. The report notes that “both market-based and regulatory policies have distinct, but complementary roles”.

The governance challenges include “ensuring coordination, building consensus by mediating conflict, and setting strategy” because climate change is “an all-of-economy and society problem”. It demands “cross-sectoral and cross-scale action; building consensus” because “large scale transformations can unsettle established interests; and strategy setting is required due to the transformative and time-bound nature of climate mitigation”. Existing “climate institutions have a mixed record in addressing these challenges”.

The IPCC notes the importance of governance “acting through laws, strategies and institutions, based on national circumstances, [which] supports mitigation by providing frameworks through which diverse actors interact, and a basis for policy development and implementation”

Governance is “most effective when it integrates across multiple policy domains, helps realise synergies and minimise trade-offs, and connects national and sub-national policy-making levels” . Governance must build “on engagement with civil society actors, political actors, businesses, youth, labour, media, Indigenous Peoples and local communities” in order to be effective and equitable.

Here the IPCC provides a sound basis for designing a new department. The breadth of knowledge that has to be shared and created in order to address mitigation, adaptation, and the transition to new economic, industrial, social, and governmental approaches demands a powerful institution.

While the deep interdependencies across all the integrated and interdependent policy domains involved indicate an influential department, experience in government has shown institutional flexibility and efficiency can suffer in the absence of careful organisational design, the right culture, and the right systems and processes.

The devil is always in the detail with organisational design. The new department would need to have a decisive influence on energy, transportation, industry, urban planning, and agriculture policy and reform. That could be achieved through a mega-department, however the chances of finishing up with a risk-averse, hierarchical, and unresponsive entity are non-trivial.

There is probably no alternative to beginning at the top. The government needs to have clear policy objectives for mitigation, adaptation, and transition that incorporate unambiguous and ambitious targets and timing. It has to promulgate the basis for a test-and-see culture and a blame free environment that is prepared to tolerate experimentation and mistakes. The right tools don’t yet exist for the climate governance task.

The ministerial arrangements is the first institutional arrangement that needs to be well thought out. A ministerial sub-committee tasked to monitor and approve initiatives and costings for consideration by Cabinet will be needed because of the breadth of issues and responsibilities. It must be equal in seniority to the other Cabinet sub-committees. The new Climate department should have a strong voice here.

When ministers work effectively together toward well understood policy objectives much of the inertia and friction that can emerge between and within departments can be reduced, and the chances of industry sector capture of policy minimised. This in turn can have an impact of departmental design, providing the Prime Minster holds ministerial colleagues to high standards of performance.

Whether climate governance is pursued through a mega-department or through a clearing-house function akin to that of Treasury/Finance, it will need to be a high performing institution that ensures government receives the best possible advice on mitigation, adaptation, and transition policy decisions.

Ideally, the central departments in Australia would currently be collaborating on incoming government briefings that highlight the urgency of climate action. Drawing on the IPCC report, the departments of Prime Minster and Cabinet, Treasury, and Finance could be putting forward suggestions for managing climate governance to a new cabinet. More likely, any innovative and strong action on mitigation, adaptation, and transition will need to come from the incoming government itself.

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