Blowing policy bubbles: rethinking emissions targets and renewable energy subsidies in the UK

The United Kingdom’s (UK) Climate Change Act was the first instance of a nation state self-imposing legally binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its achievement depends to a large extent on decarbonising the country’s energy systems, particularly through the scaling up of renewable energy supply. Political attention, policy image and the discursive entwining of climate and energy were all crucial drivers of this agenda in 2008. However, this article demonstrates that as political salience waned and economic depression dragged on, the cost of meeting long-term climate and energy targets is being reconsidered. Central to debates about setting interim emissions reduction targets and implementing low-carbon energy policies is their proportionality i.e. whether their perceived social costs outweigh their benefits and whether this may to over-investment or ‘policy bubbles’. Drawing on an emerging literature on (dis)proportionate policymaking we mobilise these concepts to conduct a critical discourse analysis of policy documents and media articles, and 33 interviews with key political actors and stakeholders. The findings provide a detailed account of how the dominance of an economic framing, and the arguments therein about over-investment at a time of fiscal restraint, have been used to challenge climate targets and derail renewable energy policies. Ultimately, claims about policy proportionality hinge on which costs and benefits are considered. Despite the objective truth claims of economic and technical analyses of climate and energy issues, these framings have produced contradictory policy outputs and rationales, belying the ideological and political motivations behind certain decisions. We discuss these findings within the context of maturing renewable technologies, fluctuating energy prices and the UK’s cross-party consensus strategy approach to climate politics. The novel concepts and discursive approach deployed in this article bring a fresh perspective to these recurrent, and widely relevant, debates in energy research and social science.