The Impact of Brexit on the UK and Devolved Energy System

03 Oct 2019

There remains high uncertainty about the likely impact of Brexit on the ‘energy system’. In our briefing paper, we use the example of a changing UK/ Scottish government relationship to illustrate two key aspects. First, Brexit may affect the formal division of policymaking responsibilities, but there is little clarity on how each government will use them. Second, politics and policymaking is only one of many determinants of outcomes from complex systems, and the idea of an ‘energy system’ is itself unclear.

Brexit will produce a new division of policymaking responsibilities

Initially, we can generate a clear picture of multi-level policymaking:

  • The EU focuses on environmental law and state aid regulations in relation to trade and competition, energy security, and objectives such as to reduce energy demand and increase the proportion of energy from renewable sources.
  • The UK is responsible for energy security overall, including key aspects such as the production and regulation of nuclear energy and the regulation of electricity supply, and access to the minerals (coal, oil, gas) to produce energy.
  • The devolved role seems limited to the delivery of EU regulations and UK-driven policies, the promotion of measures influencing supply and demand, and non-energy policies with an indirect impact on energy use.

However, the formal allocation of competences only tells a partial story. Actual powers may operate differently from the strict legal picture, for several reasons.

First, there is a general lack of clarity about overlaps in responsibility when EU, UK, and Scottish competencies are not exclusive, and some powers are increasingly shared in complicated ways (by design or in practice). Second, some governments do not use their powers energetically, such as when EU powers are designed primarily to encourage action rather than strict prescriptions backed by effective regulation, or when the UK government devolves power to a Scottish Government that has carved out a disproportionate role in renewable energy partly because it helps the UK meet its EU obligations. Third, the law is only one of many contributors to multi-level energy policy.

We discuss examples in which these blurry boundaries play out in practice, and may be further complicated by Brexit. These include: the lack of coordination around multiple ways to address energy demand (including energy labelling and product/building standards, emissions reduction measures, promotion of efficient generation, and buildings performance measures); and, the future harmonisation of rules to encourage an EU-wide energy market. Further, energy issues seem most stark when we consider the cross-cutting nature of energy ‘transitions’, in which governments at all levels are committed – albeit in different ways, with different roles to play – to the transformation from high to low carbon energy systems.

The impact of government policy on energy system transitions

The idea of an energy system transition or transformation magnifies post-Brexit confusion because it adds conceptual uncertainty: what do people mean when they describe an energy system, imagine its transformation, and identify the contribution of policymaking to system change?

Academic studies and governments strategies refer to energy systems, and their hopes for energy transitions, but with a tendency to use these terms frequently but imprecisely. Indeed, governmental discussions of systems are often metaphorical, to project a very general way of thinking holistically about energy policy, without any attempt to define a system, its key components and processes, and the specific role of government in helping to secure transformation.

In that context, we identify the three most useful stories – from studies of socio-technical systems, complex systems, and social-ecological systems – to help understand the importance of innovations and the role of social and political practices to support them.