Support 110 years of independent journalism.

Chris Stark: New oil and gas licences are a “total waste of time”

The former chief executive of the Climate Change Committee on the political will for net zero, setting ambitious targets, and the futility of North Sea drilling.

By Megan Kenyon

When the Prime Minister gave a speech announcing he would be rolling back several of the UK’s net zero policies, Chris Stark wasn’t watching. The former chief executive of the Independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was delivering a speech at the Francis Crick Institute in central London to an audience that included David Attenborough. He had to read a transcript of Rishi Sunak’s announcement instead.

“I have regrets that he made that speech,” Stark says, speaking to New Statesman Spotlight in an interview prior to stepping down as head of the government’s climate watchdog. Stark has only two days left in the role when we meet at the CCC’s offices in Westminster on 24 April. Sunak’s speech on 20 September last year fell during New York Climate Week. It included the watering down of several key climate policies, such as a delay to the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

“It was really damaging because there were literally UK folk in climate discussions trying to push others to go faster,” Stark says. The biggest impact of the Prime Minister’s speech was the impact it had on the UK’s standing as a climate leader, he adds. “The message that was taken back to every country in Europe was that the UK had stepped off its ambition on climate… It’s so hard to recover that growth after you’ve made it a matter of policy.”

Less than two months later, another key speech opened the floodgates for further climate controversy. In the King’s Speech on 3 November, the government announced new legislation – the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill – which will grant new licences for the extraction of oil and gas.

Stark describes new oil and gas licences as a “total waste of time”. In a technical sense, he explains that if we were to extract the world’s remaining reserves and burn them, then we would completely override the targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Instead, the UK should be reducing demand for oil and gas in the first place, he says. “Every country in the world has some duty and obligation to keep supply to as low a level as possible. Otherwise, we’re going to have unchecked climate change.”

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Indeed, he remains cynical as to the prominence this topic has been given in climate politics and policy in the UK. “British politics has been completely transfixed for nearly two years on this issue of oil and gas licences,” he says, “and it has sucked all the oxygen out of the debate around what to do about climate change.” Analysis from the Energy and Climate Change Intelligence Unit found that oil from the proposed new licences would do little to support the UK’s energy independence and security, and will contribute less than 1 per cent of the petrol used by UK cars over the next seven years. “The fact that we’re licensing more is not going to allow us to extract that much more,” Stark adds.

“It makes me think that this was by design,” he says. “Because all the oxygen has been sucked out of the debate, it means we haven’t got the political capital to deploy on the heat pump story, or the electric vehicle story. That’s where the action needs to be.”

[See also: The Policy Ask with Christopher Hammond: “The government should scrap the effective ban on new onshore wind farms”]

Hailing from Glasgow, Stark began his career working for the Treasury on Whitehall, before returning north of the border to head up the Scottish government’s strategy unit. It was here that he cut his teeth as an expert in climate policy, moving up the ranks to become director of energy and climate change before joining the CCC as chief executive in 2018. A month prior to our interview, the CCC had delivered a damning verdict of the Scottish government’s progress towards its target to reach net zero by 2030, dubbing it “no longer credible”. This goal was then scrapped, which eventually led to a succession crisis at the heart of government. After our interview, the power-sharing agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Green Party broke down, and the First Minister Humza Yousaf resigned.

Owing to his background, Stark says the situation in Scotland “hits home” for him. “[The climate target] was one of the ways in which the new Scottish government [under Nicola Sturgeon] was trying to demonstrate how bold it was,” he says. But he is stoic about how things have panned out. “It’s a cautionary tale – this is what happens when politics gets ahead of what’s possible.”

Considering this development, are ambitious targets such as Scotland’s initial plan to reach net zero by 2030 actually useful? “Absolutely,” Stark says, “but not in all areas of policy.” A crucial part of the CCC’s work is to prepare the UK’s carbon budgets, which place a legal restriction on the total amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over a five-year period in order to keep it aligned with its commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The CCC is currently preparing the UK’s seventh carbon budget, which will cover the period from 2038-42. Stark explains that tracking emissions with precise targets is crucial given how “pervasive” carbon is in the economy. “You’ve got to focus on all the ways in which we use carbon in the economy,” he says. “You can measure it.”

Stark’s departure from the CCC also falls during a period in which the committee lacks a permanent chair. Piers Forster replaced Lord Deben (John Gummer) as interim chair in 2022, but the government has yet to make a proper replacement. “We absolutely should have a permanent chair by today,” Stark says. “I don’t think it speaks well of the priority that the government gives climate change that in two years we haven’t been able to replace John.”

With a general election looming, finding a permanent climate watchdog representative is unlikely to be at the top of Sunak’s priorities. “Replacing the chair in the run-up to the election is always going to be difficult and we’ve left it too long,” Stark says. “We should have filled that post two years ago.” Stark is clear that in order to make real progress in the race to net zero, discussions around climate policy must be detoxified. “We haven’t seen the same brand of positive leadership that we had at the start of my time at the CCC [in 2018] from anyone on the political spectrum,” he says. “It was exciting [then] – it’s not exciting now.”

[See also: Lord Deben: “Sunak will not reach net zero unless he changes policy”]

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Sustainability, published on 10 May 2024. Read it in full here.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : , ,