Cambridge Zero Postgraduate Academy seminar with Chris Stark, UK Climate Change Committee

7 July 2023

Cambridge Zero Postgraduate Academy seminar with Chris Stark, Chief Executive, UK Climate Change Committee

Reported by Jennifer Hawkin, PhD Student, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

Fifteen years ago, the UK did something which at the time was quite unique; the government signed into law a long-term commitment to reduce emissions and, at the same time, launched the Climate Change Committee, an independent body to advise the UK government on emissions targets (carbon budgets) and preparing for climate change.

On 17 May 2023, the Cambridge Zero Postgraduate Academy, also began something new, launching their first ever Student Dialogue event with Chris Stark, Chief Executive, UK Climate Change Committee (CCC). The Student Dialogue is an exciting new initiative aiming to bring postgraduate students into conversation with senior policymakers and experts in the climate space; this first event was a great showcase for the engaging and thought-provoking dialogue that these sessions can enable.

Chris began the session by providing an overview of how the Climate Change Committee’s approach is evolving and plans for the seventh carbon budget, before opening the conversation to the twenty student participants.

The seventh carbon budget report is likely to be an interesting development from previous iterations for four key reasons:

  • Firstly, the next report is likely to be accelerated so that it can be delivered within 18 months (rather than the usual two years), ready for any new government to implement the big decisions that will be needed within their initial few months.
  • Secondly, the seventh carbon budget will be much more demanding than previous budgets which took advantage of the “easy wins” such as changes in the power system (and, in the case of the 5th budget, were above the targets set by international commitments). In contrast, the 7th budget is likely to require large quantities of negative emissions (both land-based and engineered) to compensate for the toughest two sectors, the “two Fs”: flying and farming. Since engineered removals are only currently in a pilot phase, at best, these analyses will have high levels of uncertainty and risk which the report will try to consider more explicitly.
  • Thirdly, the report will probably include fewer pathways so that it can be put together on a tight timeframe. The range of scenarios (plausible trajectories) considered in previous reports gave a lot of variation in emissions trajectories. One interpretation of this is that it’s not worth developing additional scenarios because they offer little additional insight; an alternative could be that the considerations of what is plausible may be too narrow.
  • Lastly, the report will have a greater focus on cross-sectoral themes and the broader context. The changing international and economic situation will provide an important backdrop to any conclusions of the report. Rates of asset turnovers, resource availability and trade will be highly sensitive to the broader context and will affect many sectors. Cross-sectoral themes, such as the food system, carbon removals, & spatial coordination, will be used to help distil system-level conclusions.

The role of the UK within a global context was brought up several times during the conversation. Including consideration of the global availability of resources and the growth in trade barriers as a key concern for the net zero transition. The limitations on resources have shaped some of the CCC’s past recommendations, including their level of ambition around electric vehicles (EVs), where global supply chains and availability place limits on the UK’s growth rate. Global trade is also important when considering emissions from agriculture. The CCC analyses have previously estimated agricultural emissions based on an assumed reduction in cattle due to UK diet changes but the UK is one of the most climate efficient places to farm meat. Broader thinking, including the prospect of meeting the global demand for meat consumption in climate efficient locations to reduce overall emissions is a growing consideration of the CCC.

The discussion also highlighted the success the UK has had as a “policy framework” exporter on climate change. For example, the CFD (Contracts for Difference) process was developed via a difficult policy process in the UK to drive accelerated growth in the UK offshore wind industry. Similar frameworks are now applied in around 100 other countries to support growth in renewables by giving certainty to commercial investors. Future contributions might be key policies and frameworks around hydrogen and land-use. The development of these policies is driven by constraining the transition to investments domestically (accounting for international contributions as additional); this framework can be justified where the export of intellectual thought (in terms of policy and frameworks) may be more impactful than the potential level of financial overseas investments.

Looking forward it was noted that the structure of the CCC may need to change so that it can provide dynamic reporting and continued effective influence. Participants discussed how the advisory role of the CCC gives the committee the freedom to provide independent and open information without any incentives for undue caution in their conclusions and recommendations. Chris highlighted that changing this would undermine the core value of the CCC. On the other hand, we could expect developments such as teams in devolved nations which can provide tailored information relevant to the local context. This is likely to become increasingly important as the role of land-based policies and planning regulations for new infrastructure begin to constrain the transition, and where the national deployment plan must respect regional geography. For example, it might be sensible to consider Scotland as the lead region for land-planning changes, perhaps, alongside support for early building transitions. This framework of the CCC is unique within a UK policy context as a UK body that also has powers in devolved nations.

Participants also discussed key future challenges which early career researchers should be thinking about. Chris highlighted the knowledge gap around climate adaptation. Poor decisions are being made simply because there isn’t available information.

Nevertheless, the event had a mostly optimistic tone with Chris offering three encouraging reasons for optimism. Firstly the transition so far in the UK has been largely successful, even under governments which might not be expected to drive positive change, secondly the transformational change in power systems shows that large scale change can happen rapidly under certain conditions, and lastly but possibly most importantly, even in cost-of-living crisis and amongst many other difficult circumstances, climate remains a key public priority with high levels of support.

Image by Li-An Lim - Unsplash