Guest post by Chris Skidmore

A Green Recovery: Reflections from the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore

Share

In October 2020, we spoke to Member of Parliament The Rt Hon Chris Skidmore to discuss his work on the UK’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050. This interview is a companion piece to our ongoing podcast series exploring Science, Policy, and a Green Recovery.

Q: You were the minister who signed into law in June 2019 the UK government’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050. While some would say that is not ambitious enough, it is still a marked difference from our current trajectory. How easy was it to make that case to your colleagues back in the summer of 2019?

A: When it comes to the political perspective on climate change, the current government’s ambitions have been built on foundations laid by previous governments. I think it is important that we try to take the party politics out of this, and to instead look at the direction climate change policy is going in in order to make sure we don’t get one government coming in and overturning a previous government’s work. The Climate Change Act signed into law by Ed Miliband when he was the Energy and Climate Change Secretary is something we have used as a framework. We have got a carbon budgeting process, the committee on climate change, etc. And it was based on the Committee on Climate Change’s 2018 report that the government took the decision to move from existing ambitions of an 80% reduction on existing emissions to our net zero target. We followed the committee’s recommendations that it should be done by 2050, though Scotland could be slightly sooner and Wales slightly later.

I know that there is sometimes pressure that we should somehow decarbonize faster by simply shutting our economy down, but I believe that in order to have the economy deliver real change we have to be able to take the population with us. When we look at the scale of change that is needed, whether in the home, or taking petrol cars off the road, or in decarbonizing energy sources, we need a sustainable approach, which will take time. But it is now time to deliver on wider strategies of how we are actually going to make these changes happen, otherwise it will be too late to make our 2050 net zero goal.

Q: It is an interesting point – party politics versus the sustained, longer term view. How do you see the balance between political disagreements and the stability of a framework for getting to net zero?

A: I think there are various parties and individual members of parliament who have their skepticism about pursuing a net zero target, but there is also an overall envelope over common agreements about the challenge ahead. Within that envelope, there will be debates around the adoption of different technologies, such as debates around nuclear and offshore wind. Behind the rhetoric lies decisions about local communities who are either willing to uptake onshore wind or not. There are places chomping at the bit to have it, and there are other places where it less popular. Those are the contested areas of unresolved political influence which draw heavily on the local level of decision-making, but it is also an evolutionary process. We are seeing local authorities taking the lead in some places while disagreeing between themselves on the best path there. So, I think we need national frameworks that can help resolve these tensions, alongside catapult centers around energy supply. We need to work out how we can move discussions beyond Parliament, including our local elected representatives as well.

Q: Do you think people have a sense of what the net zero commitment means?

A: Polling suggests that we are not there yet at the moment. I think the concept of net zero is sort of alien to a vast majority of the population, but that that will evolve over the next decades. You can already see some cities are exploring low emission zones, electric vehicles, low carbon transport, etc. There will be huge challenges around domestic energy supply, insulation, and the proper management of subsidies.

Q: Looking to the future, do you think the best way to make progress is to try to create a narrative that connects people to the goal of net zero, or is it about tailoring interventions that are going to be attractive to them for other reasons?

A: Obviously, they are not mutually exclusive. We need a carbon budget with progress points, where you can judge whether your off track or whether you are on track. We need a pipeline approach to looking at net zero, one which comes with a trajectory for getting there. With that comes public accountability, particularly for politicians. We need to have milestones of actually committing to actually delivering on individual projects. We have also got to incentive private R&D. Getting to net zero is a moonshot. It’s about delivering challenge-led funding opportunities, investing in technologies, and bringing companies on board and into the UK. It is not just about the race; it is about actually making things happen.

Q: Do you have any final reflections in terms of how we get to net zero, and what has gone into the government’s thinking on the path there?

When we took the decision to achieve net zero by 2050, we were very conscious that other countries such as Norway had taken up this vision, but that we were the first G7 country to do so – sneaking in ahead of France who was looking at the time to potentially legislate on net zero commitments. So, we’ve just talked about local politics and national politics, but the target the UK is rolling out is also about the UK’s role as a world influencer, and the prospect for fostering innovation which will have a wider ripple effect across the globe. The UK makes up 1% of all carbon emissions at the moment, but we have the opportunity to transform the ambitions of others. For example, China has now announced that they will go net zero by 2060 – would that have happened if the EU had not gone first? Probably not. So, we see that big global changes come by having strong global ambitions, and if we lead, others will follow.