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Lord Deben: “Sunak will not reach net zero unless he changes policy”

The former Tory cabinet minister and chair of the Climate Change Committee on the government's approach to the green transition.

By Megan Kenyon

The UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has been without a permanent chair for six months. In June 2023, John Gummer, who is formally known as Lord Deben, stepped down from the helm of the CCC having already extended his term for a further nine months following a request from the then secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng.

Gummer had been due to resign in September 2022. Legally, a chair of the CCC is only allowed two terms, each of five years, and he had been in the post since 2012. Almost 18 months on from that first request for an extension, the government has yet to announce Gummer’s replacement.

“The government knew the date I was due to step down,” he said, when we met online on a frosty January morning, “but they hadn’t made any preparation.” He described the delay in making a permanent appointment as “extremely damaging”.

In 2025, the CCC must deliver the UK’s seventh carbon budget, the legal limit for the country’s net greenhouse gas emissions over the years 2038-42. The former Tory cabinet minister pointed out that without a permanent chair at the helm, “the committee cannot do the job under the direction of the person who will have to complete it”.

Spotlight understands that the government has interviewed all the potential candidates, but it has yet to make a formal appointment. Gummer didn’t give away who his choice of successor would be, but suggested that the government could be stalling because it was “wary of having the constant referral that the CCC is supposed to give,” he said, adding that the job of the Climate Change Committee is to “keep the government’s feet to the fire”.

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The 84-year-old, who was environment secretary under John Major and served in front-bench roles for Margaret Thatcher, has been a Conservative peer since 2010, when he was made a lord in Gordon Brown’s dissolution honours. But despite his membership of the Conservative Party, Gummer was clear that on climate change issues he “speaks and votes as an independent”.

One such issue – which has dominated recent headlines following the resignation of Chris Skidmore as both the Conservative MP for Kingswood and chair of the net zero review – is the government’s pursuit of new oil and gas licences, which will arrive in parliament as the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill. Gummer didn’t say he would follow Skidmore but added that he plans to vote against the legislation when it reaches the House of Lords. To him, this decision demonstrates “there is no sense of urgency in this government” to tackle climate change.

This was perhaps most apparent when, in September 2023, Rishi Sunak diluted a series of measures relating to the UK’s progress towards net zero. And in the King’s Speech in November, the government announced its plans for an expansion of the UK’s North Sea oil and gas exploration.

Gummer said these decisions show the government “clearly doesn’t have a direction” on climate change, which he described as a “fundamental worry”. “If you understand climate change, and take it seriously, the word urgency is absolutely wrapped up in all that you do.”

Sunak’s decision to delay vital targets, such as the ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars, the prohibition of gas boilers, and the government’s push to allow new oil and gas licences, has damaged the UK’s reputation as an international climate leader. Gummer directly contrasted the decisions being made now with the leadership that Britain showed when it hosted the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow more than two years ago.

[See also: Just stop the need for Just Stop Oil, says climate adviser]

“I never thought I’d be speaking like this,” he said, “but the leadership which Cop26 and Boris Johnson had shown has been ditched by a government that hasn’t understood why it was so serious.” He described the government as having “become silly” in its defence of recent decisions on net zero.

“In other words, its defence [of the net zero rollback] manifestly doesn’t stand up,” he added. “Mr Sunak will not reach net zero unless he changes the policy… so going around saying we’re going to meet net zero in our own way, is just not true.”

He pointed again to the government’s Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill as a key example of this. The government has claimed that further oil and gas exploration in the North Sea will improve UK energy security and will have a lower environmental impact than importing oil from elsewhere. “Again, the government doesn’t actually tell the truth,” Gummer said. He accepts that the extraction of natural gas from the North Sea is “somewhat less damaging to the environment” as it will mean the UK is less reliant on imports. But describing the UK as “one of the dirtiest producers of oil”, he pointed out that “there is no advantage” to the UK in oil production due to the high levels of carbon required to extract it and the fact that by the time extraction is properly up and running, “the world will be awash with oil”.

In opposition, the Labour Party has said it will not take out any new oil and gas licences if it is to form the next government. Gummer praised this move from Keir Starmer and his team: “I entirely supported the Labour Party when it said it wouldn’t do anything other than observe contracts that had been taken.” But he cautioned the party to maintain this position in the face of the opposition it may receive from unions. After announcing its plans not to take out any new contracts, Labour was heavily criticised by the GMB trade union – which is also one of the party’s biggest donors. Gummer said the unions should rethink their position.

“You do not safeguard people’s jobs by continuing to do things which are no longer sensible things to do,” Gummer said. “You wouldn’t have continued the canals against the railways in order to save people’s jobs,” he explained, as “that would have been entirely wrong”. But, he said, “what you do have to do is to make sure that there is a direct link between new jobs and the jobs you’re losing now”.

But despite the occasional toxicity of the debate, Gummer does not think net zero has become a victim of the culture wars. Instead, he believes the approach taken in the reporting of climate change issues falls too neatly into doom and gloom. When asked about a recent poll that showed a third of teenagers think climate change is being exaggerated, Gummer suggested that this obviously means there are two thirds of teenagers who don’t. He said focusing too heavily on the negatives isn’t an effective use of time.

“If you don’t have a sense of humour, you’re going to be miserable about everything,” he said. According to him, not taking things overly seriously is essential to dealing with the climate crisis. Approaching the issue more lightly, seeing a problem for what it’s worth, can help find manageable solutions. “You have to have a sense of humour,” he said, “if you’re going to have a sense of proportion.”

[See also: Chris Skidmore: Net zero climb-down sacrifices Britain’s climate leadership for short-term gain]

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