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The Policy Ask with Chris Stark: “The government has undermined its climate message by giving the green light to new coal mines”

The CEO of the Climate Change Committee on public speaking, planning reform, and Gordon Brown.

By Spotlight

Chris Stark is the CEO of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body sponsored by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero that advises the government on tackling the climate crisis and meeting emissions targets. Stark has been chief executive since April 2018, and led the committee’s work on recommending a net-zero emissions target for the UK, which was the world’s first such target to be put in legislation. Previously he was director of energy and climate change for the Scottish government, helping to develop Scotland’s approach to emissions reduction and the transition to green energy.

How do you start your working day?  

I still wake up with Radio4’s Today programme, then read the newspapers – habits formed as a civil servant. My working day doesn’t have much of a consistent pattern beyond that, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I live in Scotland and travel to London each week, so I spend a lot of time on trains searching for wi-fi.

What has been your career high?   

My career high – by some distance – was our net-zero report in 2019, which led eventually to the UK net-zero target. We worked so hard on the analysis and the advice in that report, so it was a special moment when it was published. I could feel how much was resting on it and I think it has withstood the subsequent scrutiny.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Driest-mouth moment was in the Treasury. I was tasked with leading the development of the new UK film tax credit. We’d convinced a sceptical industry and an even more sceptical chancellor. Then one evening the European Commission told us it wasn’t legal. That was the first and last time I’d ever received a personal call from Richard Attenborough.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Have fun thinking of good ideas and be positive about presenting them. Run towards the big challenges, not away. And accept invitations to speak. I learned later how important it is to get comfortable with public speaking. I’m not sure it ever feels natural to do it, but doing it regularly means you know you’ll be OK.

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Which political figure inspires you?

I’ve been very lucky to work with some impressive politicians across UK and Scottish politics. I have huge respect for Gordon Brown. I didn’t meet him often, but his intellect was so inspiring. He wanted the analysis, rather than the line to take, and he would regularly find a better way through than his officials.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

Through successive administrations the government has stuck with decarbonising electricity. There’s a long history of industry pressure for the government to support fossil fuels – energy policy is too often made over thoroughly agreeable lunches – so it takes political bravery to continue the project. We’re seeing the benefits.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?   

It would be great if the government didn’t undermine its entire message on climate by giving the green light to new coal mines.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?  

We are finally reaching the big decisions on how we heat UK homes without fossil fuels. I’m pleased that I’ve had a hand in moving the conversation on to “how” and beyond “whether” it should happen. But it’s now squeaky bum time, and the way forward will be one of the major decisions for the next parliament. I hope it will be a transformative moment.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The UK political commentary of the last 18 months was dominated by the psychodrama in the Conservative Party. We took our eye off truly remarkable energy policy changes in the EU, the US and China, which point us towards quicker decarbonisation. We need to look up and see what has been achieved over the recent energy crisis and ask whether quicker change is possible here.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?   

The priority used to be finding new climate solutions. Now it’s deploying them. Planning rules are holding us up, so let’s be bold in removing barriers to green infrastructure. We can dramatically improve the time for consent of renewables, grid, renovation of better insulated homes and offices. It would cut the costs of the transition and build confidence across the country. That’s real levelling up.

[See also: Net zero strategy: industry is key]

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