Progress towards the government’s goal of zero emissions by mid-century risks being derailed unless political leaders work harder to secure voters’ support, the head of Whitehall’s leading-edge climate science advisors said on Thursday.
Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, told guests at an event run by the think tank Onward that UK politicians’ lack of leadership on the climate emergency had increasingly pushed his previously politically neutral body into ‘a more political arena’, centred on the means and methods necessary to de-carb the economy.
Conservative backbenchers including former Brexit leader Steve Baker have recently questioned the costs to consumers of measures such as stripping out gas boilers and substituting EVs for ICE transport, Stark noted. Such objections were injecting controversy into decision-making, a fact the CCC boss welcomed.
“Let me acknowledge from the top that the current politics of net zero are becoming very, very interesting. And they are becoming increasingly contested,” he said.
“For my money, that is probably a good thing,” Stark asserted.
“Frankly, I don’t think we’ve had enough of that debate – enough of that scrutiny – of the many, many choices that are before us here in the UK,” the CCC boss said.
Stark cited the recent approval into law by Johnson’s government of the IPCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget.
“I think it was a mistake not to put [the Sixth Carbon Budget] to a vote in Parliament on both occasions,” he said.
“I am fairly certain that a vote would have demonstrated that there was a political consensus continuing in this country and in this parliament for acting on this. I think that would have renewed the democratic mandate for the changes ahead, and I think we should always be prepared to test and indeed retest that political will to pursue the course.”
Critics among activists have complained of meagre involvement by Johnson’s administration in identifying the detail of climate change mitigation, beyond headline-grabbing pabulum such as last November’s “Ten Point Plan”.
Among examples, they cite last month’s hydrogen strategy, which plotted no transition course away from the gas’s methane-dependent variety, and towards climate-safer alternatives made from water.
The Johnson’s long-delayed Net Zero Strategy needed to be “a product of politics”, Stark argued.
“I hope that our politicians are going to push back on the technocrats, just as they should, in the Net Zero Strategy – it’s really important that they do,” he said.
“The hustle and bustle of ministerial debate around that cabinet table is really essential, because they are going to have to own [the Net Zero Strategy].
“I’m not going to bat an eyelid if ministers decide, as I suspect they will, that they take a different outlook on some of the difficult issues like consumer choice and diet change from what the modelling tells them. That is the points of the Climate Change Act – it says very clearly that targets must be met, the CCC provides advice.
“But ultimately it is the government ministers who are responsible for delivery, and that is the way it should be”.
“The key date is not really 2050 at all, it’s 2030”, Stark asserted.
“By then UK infrastructure has got to be ready, UK energy networks have to be ready, UK citizens need to be at the starting line for this mass switchover of the capital stock of the country that is necessary for net zero,” he explained.
“That happens from around 2030. That means we’re probably only one investment cycle away.”
Today, the average life of a fossil fuel asset is between 15 and 20 years, the science supremo pointed out. Urgent needs now exist, Stark concluded, for householders, government and industry to begin replacing carbon-dependent assets immediately with net zero alternatives.