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The Policy Ask with Mike Thornton: “Businesses respond to certainty almost as well as money”

The chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust on retrofitting homes, the cost-of-living crisis and government backtracking over electric vehicles.

By Spotlight

Mike Thornton has been chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust since 2020, an independent organisation dedicated to promoting energy efficiency and conservation. He joined the organisation in 2002 as head of its Scottish team, and prior to this worked at Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Lothian and Edinburgh Environmental Partnership (now Changeworks). He is also part of several member and expert advisory groups and agencies working towards renewable energy solutions and energy efficiency. He has more than 30 years’ experience in the environmental, energy efficiency, transport and recycling sectors.

How do you start your working day? 

The urgent need to cut carbon and a strong cup of coffee combine to get me started each working day. I also often think about my daughter and any children she may have and how I want to be able to look them in the eye and feel I’ve done everything I can to address the climate emergency for the sake of their future.

What has been your career high?   

Becoming chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust and having the opportunity to lead its 500-strong team of talented people.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career? 

I had planned a career as an academic in genetics but had to have a total rethink when university funding cuts meant that this career path was severely curtailed. I used transferable skills and started working in computing which felt very cutting edge and exciting at the time, in the 1980s. I didn’t know it then but years later these skills would help me enter the environmental sector when I took up a role at Friends of the Earth Scotland.

[See also: The Inflation Reduction Act is rewiring the global economy – Britain must respond]

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

Learn from observing the people you respect – think about what they did and why and how they did it. Make the best decision you can and move on to the next one – don’t look back. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Do take time out to think bigger.

Which political figure inspires you? 

Christiana Figueres for her role in getting the 2015 Paris Agreement over the line, setting the limits for carbon emissions we have fought for ever since. And also for her stubborn optimism about winning the battle against the climate emergency, which I admire and hold in my heart as inspiration.

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What UK policy or fund is the government getting right? 

The transition to electric cars has been making good progress, largely because the government had in place a clear, fixed target of 2030 for the phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars. This was providing certainty for the supply chain, the roll out of infrastructure and for consumers. It’s important to remember that certainty is almost as effective as money for driving action. It’s therefore very disappointing that this phase out date has recently been shifted back to 2035 and I hope that decision is quickly reversed.

And what policy should the UK government scrap? 

The cost-of-living and energy crises have been driven by our dependency on fossil fuels: we need to get rid of fossil fuels to lower costs and increase energy security. Investing in fossil fuel projects rather than renewables means continuing to be tied to volatile international gas markets for years to come and we will all suffer from such short-sightedness.

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

I would like to see the promised rebalancing of levy costs between electricity and gas delivered as soon as possible, or better still, these removed from bills completely. At the moment these unbalanced levies distort the running costs of electrical, zero-carbon heating, making this higher than it should be, sending all the wrong signals to householders.

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

We recently did an analysis of various national carbon reduction policies around the globe and found many countries that have introduced successful approaches to engaging and incentivising households, businesses and the public sector to improve energy efficiency and catalyse the shift to renewables. In France for example, a well-publicised, advice-led national retrofit programme led to 670,000 home renovations and 156,000 air source heat pump installations last year. Rapid and large-scale change is very achievable and while every country’s context is different there is plenty of success out there that we can learn from.

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

To achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 we need investment, long-term policies, consistent messages from government and, crucially, regulatory certainty. This sort of combined approach had been successfully driving action in the electric vehicle sector and needs to be replicated in other areas. I’d like to see the government regulating for, and sticking to, a clear timeline and pathway for ensuring all homes are energy efficient and enabling the phase-out of new gas boilers. This sort of bold action is what’s needed from the UK government, not the backtracking that we have recently seen.

[See also: How the Local Power Plan will transform the energy sector]