Chris Stark has been the chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) since April 2018. The CCC is the UK government’s official climate change advisor. He was previously the director of energy and climate change for the Scottish government and before that worked across Whitehall, including in the Treasury.
- Stark on the UK government’s Clean Growth Strategy: “[It] had all the right elements in it, but [it’s] a real challenge for government to turn that into delivery. That was last October…And since then very little…there’s not much to write home about.”
- On the CCC’s advice to government: “What we’re trying to do is give ammunition to the people in government who are trying to create climate policies.”
- On his “daft list” of cost-effective action not being pursued: “Top of my list would be onshore wind. Finding a route to market for the cheapest renewable electricity technology, it would seem to me, to be the most important step that government could take in the short term and I do believe it is daft that that is not happening at the moment.”
- On onshore wind: “I think it’s a totemic issue, actually, that you can’t see a way to produce the route to market for a technology like onshore wind.”
- On the government saying it is currently on track to achieve 93% or 95% of its carbon budgets: “I would really be concerned if government thought that somehow adding up the low and the medium and the high risk [policies] and getting to some sort of figure at the end of that was an appropriate way to consider the overall delivery of the strategy, because the risk attendant to that is really quite substantial…I don’t think [the strategy] should be described as 93% of the way.”
- On enforcing the UK’s carbon budgets: “There is plenty of scope through the parliamentary route for the Climate Change Act and the carbon budgets to be enforced properly. There is also scope to bring government to court…In every case, the ultimate sanction is that government needs to make a new plan, which is exactly what we need.”
- On 10 years of the Climate Change Act: “It’s really impressive, if you look at it, what’s been achieved with UK policymaking – especially in the power sector…If we could bring the same kind of level of strategic focus and ambition to the transport sector, to the agriculture sector, and to buildings, then I think we can be more optimistic…about where we’re headed with all this.”
- On raising the UK’s climate goals in light of the Paris Agreement: “Regardless of the long-term target and how ambitious it is, it may, in the end, be a question of how quickly we introduce these things, actually, rather than dreaming up some new things to add to the list…There are a whole obvious and clear set of things that we aren’t doing at the moment that would really help with that.”
- On the CCC’s forthcoming advice on aligning with the Paris Agreement: “We are a technical analytical body and I don’t think we are in the business of offering unevidenced optimism, so I think it’s really important. I’m sure that will be the way we approach the work on Paris, too.”
- On how ambitious the UK should be: “I definitely think that the history of the UK’s development and the contribution that the UK has made globally to that emission story should factor in the decision about how far we go and how fast we go. It is partly a moral issue…but it’s an economic issue, too.”
- On the economic case for decarbonisation: “So, this is a kind of curious situation, that we know the world will have to decarbonise. It’s not often in life you get a dead cert like that…Surely, we can build a set of economic advantages from that in the UK.”
- On the current voluntary approach to farming emissions: “Policies, particularly in agriculture, have relied on a voluntary response, and that hasn’t happened. So I think we need to accept that and move on to something that looks like a tighter policy framework.”
- On climate risks and benefits: “I believe – quite passionate, actually – that one of the issues in climate change is that we often understate some of the risks to the climate and risks to the economy that come from climate change…I think we also understate…the benefits of what comes when you address climate change.”
- On the UK government’s “Road to Zero” transport strategy: “I don’t regard the 2040 phase-out of petrol and diesel vehicles as being that ambitious. I mean, that’s 22 years away.”
- On being optimistic about the future: “I think the world is divided into two camps. Those who’ve driven a Tesla and those who haven’t. And when you drive a Tesla it’s nothing to do with climate change, you think, my goodness, this thing goes fast. So there is an optimism that comes from the experience of actually seeing something better. And I think the CCC should be part of spelling that out.”
- On climate policy after Trump: “The reaction to Trump has been really positive, it seems to me, in the sense that everyone’s thought more about the climate issues, and especially China.”
Carbon Brief: Thanks for taking time to talk to us today, Chris. You’re pretty new to the job, so I guess quite a lot of people don’t really know where you come from. So can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got here?
Chris Stark: Yeah, of course. I am new to the job. I think this is week 10, possibly week 11, I haven’t quite worked that out. But, anyway, we’re some way short still of the fabled 100-day mark. But this is actually me returning to London, so I am detoxifying from being a civil servant at the moment and very happy not to be one at the moment. So, public servant, not civil servant.
My career is, [I] based the first 10 years of it in Whitehall, and then most recently in the Scottish government. I started down here in 2002 and I worked in various places, most of the time in the Treasury – not on climate issues, I should say – mainly around economic policy and I don’t mind admitting that’s still the thing that I’m really kind of excited about.
Then I went north again, and had two lovely kids and got married, and found my calling when it came to working in energy and climate issues in Scotland. I had a brilliant time up there, being the director of energy and climate change for five or so years. Then this job came up and I’m very, very pleased to be doing it. So I have returned to London, back to the Whitehall bubble, or just on the edge of it, as we speak today. Yeah, I take all that fascination in the policy and economics of economic policy and policy-making more generally with me into this job here.
CB: When do you first remember hearing about climate change? Was it at school, university, TV, from relatives…?
CS: Gosh, I don’t know if I can answer that question. I think it’s always something I was aware of. The point when I became very excited about it was definitely when I took on the energy job in Scotland. That felt like something good in Scotland to be working on. The job in Scotland was always one of the better jobs in the Scottish government. You were right at the kind of heart of the politics in Scotland. Economics – and in this new thing – climate change to be thinking about as well. In Scotland, the excitement really carried through. We had a great deal of support, ministerially, for making some good low-carbon policies up there.
I definitely felt like that brightened my whole outlook on climate issues, more generally. I’m not sure I can remember the first time I heard about climate change, I’m afraid, but we all watched Al Gore’s film [An Inconvenient Truth] and that was a very important moment for me, too.
CB: It’s been pretty obvious since you started that you’re bringing a different, more direct approach to the job. How much would you say of that is down to your personality, versus some sort of deliberate strategy? Or is it simply just the timing of how things are going at the moment?
CS: Well, it’s interesting that you notice that, so I think there are elements of that being a deliberate strategy and elements of that definitely just being my personality. I suppose one of the things to say from the off is that last week we published our annual report. I do feel ownership of that report and I hope you notice there is a change of tone in it. And that is partly down to me, but partly down to the committee, too.
So I think the committee have felt for a while, actually, that they wanted to take a change in tone and I’m very happy to help them with that. I think this role requires a direct approach. I think it’s important that we speak clearly and authoritatively on the issues and it’s not to say that the CCC hasn’t done that in the past, but I think we’re at the moment when, actually, we really now do need to speak directly to government about what it is [doing] and, most importantly, what it isn’t doing. And certainly last week we tried to do that.
One of the brilliant things about this job is that you are a public voice, too, so I am keen that I bring a style to that that is my own. And I am direct. So I want to make the points that I want to make and I’ll try and do that in as clear and concise a fashion as I can. So it’s interesting you’ve noticed. I’m pleased.
CB: So you already mentioned this, but one of the places where that was apparent is the progress report that you just published – and that sets out some pretty clear messages to government. Things like worrying trends in emissions outside the power and waste sectors, ambition being set without any policy to back it up, progress going backwards fast in areas like energy efficiency. Do you think that ministers are being complacent?
CS: I think that I don’t have a view on that. What I like to look at is evidence of progress, so I think it would be wrong for me to guess what’s going on there, but I can definitely say that we’ve seen, in the last year at least, the publication of the Clean Growth Strategy, which had all the right elements in it, but a real challenge for government to turn that into delivery. That was last October. [In] January, we made our assessment of it and I think we were generous, actually, towards the Clean Growth Strategy. And since then very little. That change in tone isn’t just about me, it’s also about the fact that that delivery since October – remember it is October – there’s not much to write home about.
So we are quite deliberately doing two things in that progress report – it’s worth reading, if nothing else, reading the executive summary. The two innovations I suppose in the executive summary are: firstly, giving some very direct messages to government which are the four key themes that we’ve been talking about here in the CCC; and, secondly, and this is something we haven’t done before, being super clear with government about what we expect to happen over the next 12 months. There’s a table in the executive summary which spells out what we expect government to deliver over the course of the next 12 months, and that’s something we’ll return to in the next progress report.
Now, that’s an interesting thing for us to have done. Typically, we’ve offered lots of advice about achieving the fourth and the fifth carbon budgets, for example. We haven’t been quite so direct about the delivery challenge in the year ahead, but I think it’s really important that we do that. And it’s important partly because it shows that we are holding government’s feet to the fire, but it’s also important because I hope it’s useful to government. And I’ve been an official for some time. I know how difficult it can be to operate in a space that’s as complicated as this. We’re making it as clear as we can what we would like to see happen over that period and it’s interesting. Some of the discussion I’ve had with some of the figures in government seems to confirm some of that, so actually, although it is a change of tone and although you’d be correct to interpret that as a more critical tone, actually the direct piece, the directness of our message is I think being interpreted in a helpful way in government.
When we launched it, I made the point that what we’re trying to do is give ammunition to the people in government who are trying to create climate policies. I hope we get that tone right, because I know how hard people in government try to address these issues and I know how hard some of the politicians try too, so although it is critical of some areas of government, I want to make sure that we support the people who are trying to do the right thing, too. So I suppose it remains to be seen whether we’ll do that, but, so far so good.
CB: OK, so another of the ways that you’re being a bit more direct and a bit more public facing is you’ve been quite active on Twitter. So back in June you tweeted about starting a “daft list” of low-cost climate action that would benefit the consumer, but isn’t being pursued. So I just was curious if you’d actually started that list?
CS: No, but Twitter did. It was quite an interesting experience. We were right in the midst of finalising the progress report at the time and, you’re right, I’ve been using Twitter. I wanted to set up a Twitter account, it was one of the first things I did when I arrived. It’s enormously important I think today, to have that ability to speak directly. The CCC’s excellent at social media, I think, actually, but having a personal account attached to the CCC allows me to have an additional level of editorial control. And, funnily enough, that daft list was one of the more interesting tweets, it was not a plan to create a reaction in that way. I think the Guardian wrote, there was an inclusion and one of the Guardian articles included it, too, so it’s definitely something, maybe it’s that word “daft”, I don’t know.
We did start a list of sorts and you would probably see most of that in the progress report last week. Top of my list would be onshore wind. So finding a route to market for the cheapest renewable electricity technology, it would seem to me to be the most important steps that government could take in the short term. And I do believe it is daft that that is not happening at the moment. I can speak from some authority, because we were waiting in Scotland for a long time to see that happen.
There’s more in the consenting pipeline – onshore wind – there’s more in the consenting pipeline in Scotland than there is in operation at the moment. So you don’t need to be a Chicago school economist to see if that volume found a route to market through an auction I suspect you’d get a very low price, and I’m extremely keen that that should happen. And I also think it would be an interesting signal that the present government gets it. I think it’s a totemic issue, actually, that you can’t see a way to produce the route to market for a technology like onshore wind.
Simon, you wrote [for Carbon Brief] about the 2018 [CCC] power scenarios and you’ll see there is a lot of scope in the 2020s, we say, for cheap renewable technologies, including onshore wind, to come through. So that would be number one on my list. And the other one, since we’re on it, is energy efficiency measures, simple energy efficiency measures in the built environment in the home. And the interesting aspect of both of those things is something that Lord Deben [CCC chair] cares deeply about, which is that they’re both really consumer issues, as well as being daft issues. What makes them daft is that the consumer suffers when policy doesn’t focus on the right things. So we can put a cost on – a home that doesn’t have loft insulation typically pays around a hundred quid a year more for its energy than one that does. And we’ve seen this plummeting rate in home-insulation measures in recent years. [We] talked about 5% of loft insulation [rates] from 2012 levels last week. Really stonking.
So they’d be the top list. And the last one is trees. Plant more trees, and all governments around the UK say they want to plant more trees, and we know how to do that, so it seems to me it is daft that it doesn’t happen. And it’s daft because of the fact that it’s a convergence of sensible things, it’s sensible for the climate. You can build UK supply chains around it, too. So why can’t we just get on with it. So the, “getting on with it” message was really what we were trying to get at with the daft list.
CB: Just very specifically on the Clean Growth Strategy, the Climate Change Act says government’s got a duty “to prepare such proposals and policies that it considers will enable the carbon budgets to be met”. Now since that strategy came out ministers have been saying it’ll get us, what, 93%, 95%, whatever it is, of the way to meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Isn’t that saying, effectively, that government does not consider its strategy sufficient to meet the budgets – and if it is effectively saying that, what’s the remedy, because the Climate Change Act’s pretty quiet on enforcement or consequences?
CS: There’s a lot going on there, so the two issues, if I could deal with them separately. The question of the sufficiency of the strategy first and then maybe the question on sanctions and whether the targets are, whether the framework is sufficient, second. So on the question of the Clean Growth Strategy, I spoke at a Policy Exchange event maybe three weeks ago, Ed Miliband was at it, too, and Claire Perry used the 93% stat, I think that was, 93% of the way. And I wouldn’t recognise that, but I can understand why government might wish to use it.
We took a slightly different approach in the annual report last week. The famous policy gap chart – well, I like to think it’s famous anyway – it’s the chart that we look at as a summary of where we stand. And we did two things differently this year in the policy gap chart: one was that we changed the colours, which was really important I think, actually, as a communication tool; and the second was that we moved to assess risk more explicitly. And that is because I felt it was easier to communicate.
So we are now assessing, in the policy gap chart, you’ll see for the whole economy, a set of policies that we regard as medium risk – and there’s a criteria for that, we lay that out in the document. And that is where we have a policy, but we see delivery risk to it. There are a load of areas where that’s happening. A lot of them, for example, are driven by our uncertainty around Brexit. And there’s a great deal in that slug of the chart, so the emissions reductions that might come from those policies are at risk of under-delivery and we assess that in the chart. And then there’s a set of intentions from government that are laid out in the Clean Growth Strategy, where we don’t have a policy, nor do we have a clear route to delivering it. We made those red and marked them high risk. And at least there is a framework there in the form of government having considered a strategy at least, towards it.
Those are both two high-risk categories. Well, one’s high risk, one’s medium risk, but they’re not low risk, is the key point. And I would really be concerned if government thought that somehow adding up the low and the medium and the high risk and getting to some sort of figure at the end of that was an appropriate way to consider the overall delivery of the strategy, because the risk attendant to that is really quite substantial. So we might expect some under-delivery, let’s put it mildly, against those things that have been – where policies have been made – or intentions have been set.
The other thing that happened this year in our assessment last week was that we looked again at the cost-effective path to the 2050 target and we are able to see that actually the cost-effective path has come down beneath the level of the fourth and fifth carbon budget now. So there are a set of areas where if you put in kind of a hatched red, where there are opportunities – let’s be generous about it – there are opportunities to go even further than the policies and proposals that are laid out in the Clean Growth Strategy. And the important point of that for government is that, firstly, we do not see that the Clean Growth Strategy in and of itself at the moment is sufficient. It may be when they respond to our report that they themselves will put more accurate or different emission reduction factors against their policies and proposals, in which case we can look at that, we haven’t seen that yet. But, even at its most basic level, as a measure of contingency, we need to have a set of policies that go further than that, that will allow for existing policies to under-deliver, for example. And the other aspect, finally, of that whole story, is that getting back onto the cost-effective path is a sensible thing to do when we come to think about the Paris Agreement and going still further.
So, the Clean Growth Strategy I don’t think should be described as 93% of the way. And I haven’t seen yet our minister use those sorts of terms since we published our report and I think that’s a good thing. I am extremely interested to see now what the government will do in response – and Claire Perry at the launch pointed to “Green Great Britain Week” in October as the point when we might see that, so I suppose that’s the next point to measure that.
The second part of your question was about the framework, I suppose, for climate change, and I don’t think it’s my job to defend that framework. In some sense we are a creation of that framework, so the CCC is a key part of the framework for addressing climate change that’s laid out in the act. That said, on Twitter especially, you do see quite a lot of chatter occasionally about what if – and, in fact, Lord Deben has spoken on the Today programme and was asked this question by John Humphrys – what happens if government fails to deliver, which is a very legitimate question.
I actually think the framework’s pretty tight on this, so we are a key part of exposing the fact that the government is off-track and when we make those reports it’s important to think that we are performing a statutory function for parliament. Parliament is the enforcer and, indeed, when we produce the annual report, it’s parliament I’m thinking of – that’s who I’m speaking directly to. I expect the select committees – and there are more than one here – should use that report in the way that it’s intended. Government is required to put together a plan to meet the carbon budgets and they’re required to respond to our assessment of it, too. There is lots of scope in that for parliament to flex its muscles and I don’t think yet we’re at the point when parliament might regard it as a crisis, but perhaps next year we might have an even stronger message for government. Let’s hope not.
There is plenty of scope through the parliamentary route for the Climate Change Act and the carbon budgets to be enforced properly. There is also scope to bring government to court. In fact, we are considering whether we might have the first occasion of that this week, with the Plan B case, and that is an additional route for public challenge around all this, too. And I struggle with the concept of there being something else in the mix that might make that a tighter framework, because at the end of it, in every case the ultimate sanction is that government needs to make a new plan, which is exactly what we need. So new plans that achieve better things are a pretty good sanction, it seems to me at the end of it.
CB: So while we’re talking about the Climate Change Act, and with the 10th anniversary this year of the act becoming law, what do you think would be a fitting way for the UK to mark that anniversary?
CS: So we’ve been thinking a lot about that here. We are 10 this year also, so 2008 feels like a long time ago, and this institution has lasted pretty well over that decade. I feel as I talk to you today that the CCC is well cemented, so we’ve been thinking not only about the last 10 years, but also the next 10 years. And I really think it’s a good framing technique to use that point of inflexion over the last decade and looking forward to the next decade. So the first point I suppose is that I hope, as a collection, that we with government and the wider commentariat look at that and use that as a point to take stock and refresh ourselves for the next 10 years.
What I hope happens is that around October and November when we get to the actual anniversary, we can pat ourselves on the back for the success that’s come from the power sector especially – and, indeed, from some other sectors like waste – but then turn our attention domestically to a whole new set of sectors and apply the lessons that we’ve learned over those first 10 years.
It’s really impressive, if you look at it, what’s been achieved with UK policymaking, especially in the power sector. And successive governments have done it as well. It’s a really impressive thing that has been achieved where there has been a kind of singular focus on achieving something. I am an optimist, so I believe we could do that in further sectors. The one I have in my sights absolutely is the transport sector. So if we could bring the same kind of level of strategic focus and ambition to the transport sector, to the agriculture sector, and to buildings, then I think we can be more optimistic about next year at least in our progress report, about where we’re headed with all this.
So, domestically, I hope that point later in the year when we consider the 10th anniversary, it is a point to reframe domestic policy and then, internationally, I think it’s also a point to look again at the act. And I’m looking forward to being part of that. Claire Perry’s made it very clear that she will ask us to look at the implications of the Paris Agreement on the UK target framework, so let’s look at that properly and let’s just check in with the act still being as valid and as important as I think it will need to be over the next 10 years. And, in combination, that story of us being ambitious in domestic policymaking and seeing the emissions reductions that come and hopefully a growing economy alongside it, gives us the platform to say that we continue to be a global leader on this and gives us the right, I think, to be one of the primary advocates for the global effort on climate change.
CB: You’ve already mentioned that Claire Perry’s intending to ask the committee for advice on what Paris means for the UK’s target. And, obviously, there’s a lot of work ahead of you before you can come back with formal advice on that question. But the committee’s already laid down some markers, some ranges of ambition that might be needed for a 1.5C target, for example. What do you think the UK will need to do and by when?
CS: So I won’t prejudge the work that we will do on Paris, but I’ll say that there are some things that we know we’ll need to do in that work. I think before even I get to that, though, it’s worth just rewinding further even. What is the question that they might ask of us? So, if the request that will come from government to us won’t come till October, presumably timed around the time of the IPCC report on 1.5C, I think there’s quite an interesting space to consider just what it is that government should ask the CCC to look at.
Now, we will be free to look at the things that we think we need to look at, but I think it would be good for there to be a well thought through request of us in October, and I’m keen to make that point when we consider the Paris work. Between now and October, let’s collectively just make sure that we’re all clear on the issues that need to be explored.
There are some basic things we know we’ll need to do. We’re going to have to think about what the appropriate level of the target should be in 2050, for example. We’re going to have to think about the point at which the UK should reach net-zero. We’re going to have to think about what the appropriate share of – an equitable share, to use that term – of global emissions and global net-zero effort we should take. There are a host of things under that banner and then there’s the question of what needs to happen now. And it’s on that last point I suppose we can be surest.
So last week, again in the progress report, it was really clear that there are a set of things that we could be getting on with right now, we kind of know most of the elements that will be necessary, regardless of the long-term target and how ambitious it is. It may in the end be a question of how quickly we introduce these things, actually, rather than dreaming up some new things to add to the list. We’ll come to that when we make the assessment. But the most important thing, surely, is to as quickly as possible get on that cost-effective path that we laid out last week. And, again, to go back to my earlier points about daft lists, there are a whole obvious and clear set of things that we aren’t doing at the moment that would really help with that. So, I hope in the coming months, government begins to progressively move its way down to that black dotted line in our policy gap chart.
CB: So you mentioned already the question around equitable share, for the UK, in terms of share of global emissions. Obviously, the existing target was set around a 50/50 chance of the 2C limit and equal per-capita shares of emissions in 2050, which has been criticised by some people as not a fair share to the UK as a rich developed country. Obviously, that’s still a decision when you come to look at what Paris means for the UK, as to whether to continue with that same approach, or whether to look at other ways of doing it. And then, on top of that, there’s also lots of uncertainty around the size of the carbon budgets, even if the overall direction for the UK is that, ultimately, we need to get to net-zero at some point. So how do you think you’re going to navigate through all of those different bits of uncertainty?
CS: Well, back to my earlier point, I think it is important that there is a great deal of thought prior to us beginning the work about. Firstly, what government expects of us in the form of the request that’s coming, but we will also need to do some work to set out some clear framework for the analysis and, actually, you’ve touched on a lot of the issues. So over the summer I think we will apply some thought to those issues. We haven’t done that yet and, indeed, it’s worth just reminding everyone out there, actually, that the request hasn’t come yet. So when we begin that work, I want to get going as soon as possible.
One of the other things that’s going to be interesting about it is, as an institution, we’ve got two roles really. So one is the statutory-advisor-to-parliament role that we talked about, particularly our annual progress report. There’s this other hat that we wear which is as the independent advisor to government and that’s the hat we’ll be wearing when we do the Paris work. And the two things are interrelated, but, interestingly, we are a bit more free in that category of advising government than we are in the statutory role. So I want to make sure we make as much of that as possible to explore as many of the issues as possible so that we can have a really thorough look through all of the issues, and especially some of the international issues where the Act is quite clear and restrictive, that we don’t typically look at those things when we do our annual progress updates, for example.
So my ideal outcome would be that we get a broad and well considered request to look at these issues, that we get a sufficient period of time to do the work, and that then it lands well and creates a different sort of statutory framework, I suppose, at the end of that, depending on the government’s view. And then we can move into that second role as statutory advisors on that framework.
CB: And. just in broad terms, what sort of timeline would you expect for that report?
CS: It’s really difficult to say, but I think there’s some important milestones coming up next year that present a critical path for it. One of them’s the work that we hope to do on aviation. So I find it hard to consider a world where we don’t look at the long-term targets work in Paris, whilst looking at aviation issues. And that’s such a controversial and difficult topic that I think we’ll want to do that. I can’t imagine where we would look at aviation and then return to it again, for example, a few weeks later. So the critical path for that would be that we’d want to make sure that the aviation work is as influential as it can be ahead of DFT [Department for Transport] concluding its aviation strategy. And that takes us into the first half of next year, I suppose. So that sort of time fit. Beneath that, I don’t think I could say now how long it would take.
It will depend, of course, what resources are made available by government to do the work, too, so we’re not set up to do – this is a bespoke piece of work that we’ll have to discuss funding with government for, too. So all of these things are slightly uncertain at the moment, but I’m sure it will be something we will try and do so that it lands in the right way and is influential in the right way for government in the first half of next year.
CB: So we’ve already seen the Scottish government – and I don’t know if you were involved at all in this process – but it’s revised its climate targets in light of Paris and it’s set a 90% cut by 2050 with a review built-in on whether and when net-zero can be met at reasonable cost. [The government proposal is subject to parliamentary approval.]
CS: Yeah, and just worth saying that I wasn’t involved in the bill. I removed myself from it when I accepted this post. But they’ve proposed that target, that’s right. But it’s really in the hands of parliament now to decide what the ultimate target should look like.
CB: So, some would say that it’s pragmatic, just to say well, we know we can get to 90%, we’re not totally sure about net-zero so let’s just park that and think about it again in five years, whenever that review comes around. And maybe it’s just a more realistic approach instead of setting a stretch target or just a political target, even if they’re not quite sure how to get there. So thinking about that and in the context obviously of the UK’s review that’s coming up, how would you view that choice?
CS: So I think there’s a number of things to say about that. The first is that what happens in Scotland is very closely related, of course, to what happens right across the UK. And when we offered that advice on the Scottish target, we were continuing to have the outlook of an 80% target across the UK, so that was one of the issues that we considered at the time.
There is this philosophical question – and I’m not going to answer it – about the basis on which you should set a target. But I think it’s really important to state as loudly as possible, what we are as an institution. We are a technical analytical body and I don’t think we are in the business of offering unevidenced optimism, so I think it’s really important, I’m sure that will be the way we approach the work on Paris, too.
That said, the other half of what we do is look at not just the domestic effort, but also the global signs, so we have to balance those two things up and the science in this – when I started the show I remember worrying a lot about the science, thinking I’d better make sure I get on top of this stuff, because I’m not a scientist. Actually, on this issue, the science is really clear and obvious, you have to stop growing the global stock of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. And, until you can do so, you will continue to see growing temperatures. So there is a simplicity to that that is really attractive to me and the secondary question of what share we take of that is a more loaded political question, I suppose. But we can bring a more objective lens to that, too.
Again, I don’t want to prejudge what we do, but I’m sure we will look at that question. But that’s not to say at the end of this that you will get a piece of analysis that looks like the Scottish analysis, just with a few bits added on. It’s definitely my intention that every piece of work that we do in the CCC, we always start from first principles and we look at all the issues. And there’s a huge freedom to being able to do that when it comes to the request to look at the Paris Agreement.
Worth saying, as well, that the Scottish government and the Welsh government would like the work that we do on long-term targets in light of Paris to be a joint commission from those governments and the UK government. That’s something I would like, too, but it will be of course for BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] ministers to decide what the eventual commission looks like.
CB: So, in the context of global reaching of net-zero emissions – which obviously implies, as you say, political questions around who gets there by when and whether some countries, because of their development status just continue to emit, at least in the medium term – does that mean that at some point the UK will have to go to beyond net-zero, ie to negative emissions at some point?
CS: Again, without having done the analysis, I don’t think I can answer that question fully, but I definitely think that the history of the UK’s development and the contribution that the UK has made globally to that emission story should factor in the decision about how far we go and how fast we go. It is partly a moral issue and I think that is an argument that is trotted out a lot, but it’s an economic issue, too.
And on a related topic about why we are doing all this, yes, of course, it’s to address the scientific problem of temperatures increasing and the impacts of climate change; but the thing I’m equally passionate about is that there is an economic side to this, too. So this is a kind of curious situation, that we know the world will have to decarbonise. It’s not often in life you get a dead cert like that. Here we’ve got a really tight statutory framework that tells us to do that. Surely we can build a set of economic advantages from that in the UK.
So I think it’s partly about us taking the lead on it. It’s partly about addressing that moral concern, but it is also surely about being amongst the first countries to address the carbon question because we are ready to make a new set of products and services that the world will require in the future. And, for that reason, I think the UK story on clean growth is a good one. Occasionally, you hear criticism that it’s no longer just an emission reductions plan, but I absolutely see the value in viewing it through that kind of economic lens, too.
I can’t answer the question directly because we haven’t done the work yet, but we will look at those issues, I hope, when we do the work.
CB: Regardless of whether the UK has to go beyond zero, at some point, there’s a few things that are likely to need to happen. There’s tackling emissions from land use and farming, there’s bioenergy in general – which a lot of people are saying can be worse for the climate than fossil fuels – and then there’s CO2 removal, which covers a whole bunch of things that is often equated with biomass with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS. How do you see those things fitting together?
CS: So, the one certainty in the work that we will do around the Paris work is that we’re going to have to look a lot more at those long-term big system questions and especially greenhouse gas removals. The CCC is really hot on issues of carbon capture and storage, for example. That’s not going to change under my leadership. I am, however, more interested perhaps in some of the – how can I describe this? – less technologically-driven concerns. So we know how to remove greenhouse gases and we know that changes in land-use can achieve that. And, indeed, that’s one of the areas where I think it is entirely fair to say we have had a less than good delivery response from government. So, some of this is not about fancy technologies. A lot of this is about simple things that are not happening at the moment.
And you talked about land use there. When I was offered this job, Lord Deben’s top tip to me was, “we must get on to the issues of agriculture and land use.” And, actually, this is nothing to do with the Paris Agreement. This is something that we just need to be doing. I’m optimistic about some of this. We haven’t had strong policies in that area. Most of the policies, particularly in agriculture, have relied on a voluntary response and that hasn’t happened. So I think we need to accept that and move on to something that looks like a tighter policy framework. What we want to do in the CCC is to inform government around that.
There are two really big goals coming up for us that we want to try and meet, moments to be influential, if I can put I that way: the first of those is the obvious thing of the 6th carbon budget. So we want to make sure that by the time it comes to setting the 6th carbon budget we’ve done a new piece of work that looks at land-use and agriculture together and considers some of the issues that you raised in your question. We will have the benefit of Defra’s SMART Inventory which is their new outlook that Defra’s brought to the data around agriculture and land-use. And we can use that for the first time.
The other goal that we want to try and – goal’s not the right word – the other point to be influential is in the post-CAP framework. So if and when we leave Europe we will have an opportunity at least to look again at Common Agricultural Policy policies and framework. You do not see written into that great efforts to mitigate climate change. And [environment secretary] Michael Gove is really strong on public goods, public money for public goods. Surely addressing climate change would fall into that camp. So I think there’s a moment that comes even before the 6th carbon budget where we need to be influential and to have presented new advice and some new principles about what that policy framework that follows should look like.
So I think, in combination, those two things present, over the next two or three years actually, quite a good opportunity to refresh some of this, to offer better advice and for government to respond to that. And my experience of Defra is that they’re quite open to that, too, so there’s lots of reasons to be optimistic there.
Again, my earlier story about getting on to the cost-effective path and that being the best insurance policy for whatever comes next in the form of the statutory framework for this, these are the sectors that we really need government to start acting on. And land-use and agriculture really hasn’t been pulling its weight so far, so I hope we’ll over the next three years have more to say on that.
CB: On biomass, this is a topic that’s attracted a huge amount of controversy, in particular directed at Drax power station, which has, you know, converted three of its units now from coal to biomass, almost all of which is imported from the southern US and Canada. There continues to be academic and public debate about what that means for climate change. I know the committee’s looking at bioenergy for a report later this year…
CS: Yep, that’s right.
CB: …but is there anything that you can say into that debate at the moment, in advance of that report coming out?
CS: So, again, I won’t prejudge the report because it’s not finished yet – and just to mention that there are two related reports that we’ll produce on or around October. One is looking at hydrogen and one is looking at bioenergy, and those two things are actually very interrelated. And both of those reports will use a new modelled understanding of the heat system as well that we’ve developed. And there’s an excellent report that we published alongside the annual progress report last week, with some new modelling, which includes lots of really interesting things if you’re into that stuff. I am very into that stuff.
Without answering your question directly, because we haven’t finished the work, we are going to look at that question of sustainable supply, and we will review our modelled assumptions about it, so you’re going to have to park that, I’m afraid, until we’ve produced the work. I think it will be important, though, and it is very important in the long-term questions, so you’re right to say it’s a controversial issue, so we want to get it right.
CB: Just coming back briefly to land-use and farming. Obviously, that needs to be a major focus for UK adaptation efforts. And adaptation is an area of the committee’s work that often gets left by the wayside. Meanwhile, I understand the government’s due to publish its new national adaptation plan and has yet to do so. What should the UK broadly and the government specifically be doing on this?
CS: First of all just to challenge something that you said, I hear a lot that adaptation is a poor relation to mitigation. And whilst I can understand the question, I think interestingly for people out there who are not in the green bubble, it’s the question of how climate change is impacting on the UK that will matter most to them and we have been incredibly influential in some of the analysis there.
We have done and we are about to undertake the third climate change risk assessment which will look at all these kind of adaptation methods. And it’s really impressive stuff. The last time we did this we ended up with over 2,000 pages of amazing analysis on the topic. It’s the area that I knew least about coming into the role, so I’ve been reading a lot about it and it’s dynamite, actually, the stuff that we produce. So it’s definitely my intention that we challenge that point about us somehow not being so influential in adaption, I don’t think that’s true, but I do think it’s a different set of issues.
So getting back to the question, adaptation is at the moment a different set of issues from mitigation. And, again, I think it’s important that the CCC plays an important part of bringing those two things together more effectively. The one area where it is so obvious that we can do that is around land use. So, when I mentioned earlier that pieces of work that we’re planning over the next two or three years on agriculture and land-use, one of the challenges for those pieces of work will be to consider different scenarios for how the climate has changed in the UK and especially around temperature. There are various thresholds at which land-use must change, in those scenarios, and then we can ask ourselves a really interesting question about what the optimal mitigation scenario should be in those circumstances.
One of the reasons why I think we can be much more influential on those topics is because we are able to do that work. So if we can have a more modelled understanding of how we use our land and how mitigation can be done in a more optimal way, against a set of clear scenarios in the future, then actually that’s a brilliant piece of work that should really mean something.
Defra are also very interested in building a proper model of land-use, across the whole of the UK. And this question of England and UK comes in here, too. So Defra are naturally focused on England, but actually that’s not going to be enough. So, one of the points to make in answer to your question is that we need a UK-wide framework for this, at least we need to understand how the different parts of the UK are addressing their requirement for a better land-use strategy, in an integrated fashion. And we’re not going to get that, it seems to me, by only talking to Defra.
So one of the really important roles that the CCC should play I think is in stitching that together. One of my ambitions is to see the CCC act as a sort of convenor for those discussions as much as we can do that. But the question of what we need to do and what Defra needs to do and what government needs to do to address all this I hope will be addressed in the NAP, the National Adaptation Plan, when it’s published soon.
CB: OK, so this is kind of the penultimate question. I’d like you to just think about a personal vision of how you imagine the UK looking in 2050. Where we’ll be getting our energy, how we’ll be heating our homes, moving around, what kind of food we’ll be eating, what’s that world going to look like?
CS: So you shouldn’t ask me these questions, because I think it’s actually something that, whatever I say now will not be the case, and it’s a useful thing to start with by saying that I will be wrong. And, indeed, I hope I’m wrong, in the right way, because I think you can be mega-optimistic about how the future should look. There’s an important prior point about this. I believe, quite passionate actually, that one of the issues in climate change is that we often understate some of the risks to the climate and risks to the economy that come from climate change. Although we have this amazing evidence of the global impacts of it. So I think we need to make sure that we do state some of these risks more strongly. The second part, though, of that is that I think we also understate, I’m not just talking about the CCC here, I think the body politic understates the benefits of what comes when you address climate change.
And you see that most obviously in what’s happened with the power sector recently, incredibly low prices which the CCC didn’t predict, in fact no-one predicted. And I do think that there is this interesting question about when we communicate what we’re trying to do in climate change – again I’m not talking about the CCC here, I want to be part of the movement to address this – we need to be clearer in spelling out the risks in a way that matters, so that people feel compelled to act; but we also need to be optimistic about changing things.
I think at the moment there is only one theory of change, which is that we need to frighten people somehow, you know that kind of question about how someone responds to stress, and I think if you frighten someone too much, you get a really poor outcome at the end of that. We need to have a bit more of the optimism that we had 10 years ago round all this.
So in answer to your question, I take a very optimistic view of what all of this could look like. I can see quite clearly a world where we are fully decarbonised in our electricity production, in fact that I hope will come relatively soon. And I see a whole mix of technologies delivering that. And you’ll see that most obviously in some of the 2030 power scenarios that we produced last week. The really exciting stuff is outside of that sector, and transport, again, is so exciting. I think we don’t have a clue what transport will look like. We make great assessments here in the CCC about what it might look like but it’s so fast-moving. I read a brilliant report last week about little vehicles, LVs, and the impact that’s having in places like San Francisco. So electric scooters, for example, completely game-changing stuff, potentially, for how we move around our cities.
But I’m really excited about the transport piece. I can see a world where, whether those vehicles are autonomous or not, we are fully decarbonised on the vehicle stock on the roads. I think it is very exciting to think of what those vehicles might be, and how they are used, and interestingly, you started this discussion asking me where – you know, my career to date – one of the biggest changes in London, from the first 10 years of my working here, and to the next stint, is Uber. And quite how pervasive that is, I don’t think you can quite understand it unless you’ve been away and come back again, actually. So I don’t doubt that there are huge shifts coming in the transport stock. All of them I think will be positive for the story that we hope we tell, at least I hope they are, the story that we need to be told and the story the government needs to focus on. And just a point on that, on Monday we hope we’ll see the Road to Zero strategy from DfT. I desperately hope that we see something ambitious in that, because I don’t regard the 2040 phase-out of petrol and diesel vehicles as being that ambitious. I mean, that’s 22 years away. And other countries in the world are very content to move quicker than that. And I think if we could just get government in the round getting that same kind of optimism, about how big shifts could some, that would be such an exciting thing.
That’s transport. And the harder one, I’ll be honest, is to imagine what the built environment will look like and especially how the built environment is heated. We’re in Sloane Square, which is, of course, one of the poorer areas of London [smiles], but when I look at some of the buildings next to where we are in Sloane Square right now, I quite often ask myself how will these buildings be heated? I find it hard to imagine lots of air-source heat pumps on the walls outside these buildings. I find it quite exciting to think that we might do something like take the heat out of the Thames, for example, and use that.
It is in that area where I we need to apply some of that optimism and creativity actually to get to the real answer here. We need those buildings, not just in Sloane Square, but right across the UK to be better insulated, we need energy demand to fall, and we’re going to have to get creative about how energy is supplied to those buildings. But, my goodness, how exciting might that be?
And one of the areas where I think we’re on the edges of what the CCC can really advise on is around how energy is supplied and how it is consumed, I suppose. And what model there is and the retail model for that. And, actually, one of the things I get really excited about is this idea of energy as a service – you know, a subscription service like Netflix, for example – and the opportunity that might come with that. So I can easily imagine a world in the future where there is a single, energy subscription, supplying the heat, possibly energy efficiency that you require, and the transport services that you use, all in a wraparound tariff. And the really interesting thing, we’re in the kind of far future here, is, does that present a new target for policy, for example, in the way that we’ve had, for example, in the power sector for a while.
One of the things again in the progress report last week is we talked about the power sector and how aggregated it was and how actually easy it is as a target for policy for decarbonisation. You’ve all the levers at your disposal to decarbonise that sector here in Westminster. We need to find more of those aggregated targets so that we can apply new policy and I suppose I can imagine a world where actually the suppliers of those energy services in the future might themselves be the deliverers of our decarbonised targets.
So we might say to those suppliers, look, it’s your job in the future to cut 5% of the carbon each year out of the energy that you’re supplying and you should find the best way to do that. So this question about what sort of world we live in. We can’t possibly answer those questions, but I think we should be optimistic and try to imagine a better thing that’s coming along here.
I think the world is divided into two camps. Those who’ve driven a Tesla and those who haven’t. And when you drive a Tesla it’s nothing to do with climate change, you think, my goodness, this thing goes fast. So there is an optimism that comes from the experience of actually seeing something better. And I think the CCC should be part of spelling that out.
CB: OK, I’m running short on time, so I’d like to wrap up with kind of a quick-fire round. So I’m just going to fire a bunch of questions, you can answer yes, no, or in whatever way you want… Can we have a third runway at Heathrow while meeting our carbon targets, given those are probably going to get tighter?
CS: Er, depends what happens elsewhere.
CB: OK Can we get around that problem by palming it off on other countries using carbon offsets?
CS: I would prefer we focused on a domestic effort.
CB: OK. Road to Zero, you’ve already mentioned that. Does it need a ban on petrol and diesel vehicles, or is there some sort of aspirational mission sufficient?
CS: I would certainly prefer something that’s beyond the mission and I quite like the ban. Everyone knows what a ban is.
CB: When should that ban come into force?
CS: Michael Gove says 2040. We would say that the fleet on the roads takes about 15 years to turn over, so it really needs to be some way before that and we would say 2035.
CB: OK. Hydrogen or heat pumps?
CS: Depends. There might be something else. So we could see hybrids. Please see earlier research.
CB: OK. Can we make zero-carbon hydrogen given CCS [carbon capture and storage] has imperfect capture?
CS: Er, I think we can, we could see more efficient CCS. We could see more efficient electrolysis and we could use hydrogen from industry, too. So there is lots that could be done with hydrogen. I think it will require a lot of effort and optimism to go back to my point about optimism, to make it happen.
CB: We’ve already touched on this. Do you think the government will find a way to support subsidy-free wind and solar?
CS: I am not really in the job of guessing about these things, but I have a feeling that they are close to making a positive decision on that, so let’s hope.
CB: OK. This is deliberately quite a provocative question: would you say Hinkley C is going to be the last new nuclear plant in the UK?
CS: No, I would not, I think we will see a Wylfa.
CB: OK. And beyond that?
CS: I think these projects are very difficult [because] they are mega-infrastructure projects. I don’t think it’s impossible. It really depends on whether the package that is arrived at for Wylfa is something that’s replicable. And the price.
CB: Is the UK shale gas industry compatible with tightening carbon budgets?
CS: We had a really good way of describing this, which I am very happy to be part of, which is that we said that shale is not compatible with the carbon targets, unless it meets the three criteria that we set out in 2016. So let’s return to that.
CB: OK. Should the UK stay in the EU ETS [emissions trading system] after Brexit?
CS: Can’t answer that question. We’re just at the point of understanding whether the EU ETS is going to work. And, of course, there’s a great interest in seeing global trading of emissions. So on that basis, it would be nice, I think, to stay in the EU ETS, but we’ve seen that actually it’s the mechanisms outside of EU ETS, like the carbon price floor, that have had bigger impacts. So we are pretty agnostic in the CCC, but we’re quite keen to look at it.
CB: OK. If the UK comes out of the EU ETS, how should we be pricing carbon?
CS: This is an economist’s wet dream. So I reserve the right not to answer that question just yet because I hope that’s a piece of work that we’ll get to do over the next 12 months.
CB: OK. Are you concerned about the form of the UK environmental regulator?
CS: Not concerned, but interested if we can respond to that consultation and make it better. We’re pretty clear on this, actually, that it is good to have environmental protection as we come out of Europe. I hope that is at least as strong as the protection that the EU has provided and I think parliament’s doing quite a good job of improving the proposals in that area already.
Where I think it is more interesting to consider the issues, actually, is when we look at the watchdog itself and the roles that it will perform. So let’s assume for a second that there is that tight legal framework around environmental protection, the sort of legal framework that you have at the moment, for example. I think it would be good to see government make some more direct consideration of the separation, or at least the identification, of enforcement from scrutiny. And, to my mind at least, the best watchdogs are the ones that have a pure focus on enforcement. And, by all means, let’s be part of the scrutiny process and feed that into a new powerful watchdog that is enforcing that new legal framework.
CB: But that would entail that watchdog having some climate change role?
CS: Yeah, in the immediate aftermath of the proposals for the new watchdog, we wrote a letter to Defra to say that actually we felt that it was important that it didn’t skirt around the climate issues. I understand the reasons for wanting to cut it out. There is a tight framework around climate change already. But, actually, I think it’s very difficult to separate environmental issues from climate issues. And, in fact, we are encouraging of this new body to have due consideration about how climate is impacting on the UK environment. We would like to continue to be the scrutineers of that stuff. And we’d like to be feeding that to a watchdog with teeth. And I think in amongst all that there is a really good model for how this could work in the future.
CB: Last one. Can the world meet its climate goals despite Trump?
CS: Isn’t this interesting that Trump’s – it remains to be seen whether Trump is a force for bad, although, of course, he is when it comes to general rhetoric on climate change – one of the interesting things for me is the reaction to Trump and, in particular, within the states [of the US]. All of the states have in some way or another tightened up their own climate policies. It’s not quite the case that the US is out the Paris accord yet, though he may yet get a second term, in which case they will be.
But, interestingly – and, again, I’m being optimistic here, no doubt – the reaction to Trump has been really positive, it seems to me, in the sense that everyone’s thought more about the climate issues and especially China. Now Chinese emissions are not looking too hot at the moment, but China’s definitely seen an opportunity to take more of a global leadership role on climate issues. And long may that continue.
And I suppose there’s another point here about the UK not losing that position. I really hope in the work that we do and the work that the UK government does over the next 12 months looking at this long-term issue of the climate and our response to it that we cement that position as a global leader on it and that we act as a proper buffer for some of the more nasty elements of the Trump comments on climate issues.
CB: Great, all right. That’s all I’ve got. All done.
CS: Very good.
The interview was conducted by Simon Evans at the Committee of Climate Changes office in central London on 6 July 2018.
The Carbon Brief Interview: Chris Stark
Carbon Brief's interview with the new chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change
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