'The pace of policymaking has to increase': Climate change expert Simon Sharpe discusses progress towards net zero

Climate change expert and former senior civil servant Simon Sharpe speaks to Mark Rowe about the role officials can play in tackling climate risks and driving progress towards net zero
Simon Sharpe. Photo: Steven May Alamy

By Mark Rowe

03 Nov 2023

Simon Sharpe is a former government policy adviser on energy and climate change and was deputy director of the government’s Cop26 unit. In his recent book, Five Times Faster, he argues politicians are not solely to blame for tardy responses to climate change. Just as culpable are policymakers, advisers, economists, diplomats and scientists within government. They tend to be the only people who understand the granular detail so end up setting targets and signposting how to reach them. But, Sharpe argues, they often ask the wrong questions or fail to convey the gravity of climate change to their political masters. Our predicament, he says, is akin to a frog in a gently warming pot of water. The frog chooses to ignore the warming: in five minutes it’s unlikely to boil to death but after 15 minutes it’s cooked. What that frog needs, says Sharpe, is a chief scientific adviser to give it hard truths and practical policies.

Do UK politicians ‘get’ how serious climate change, and the threat to the UK, is?

We’re entering a period of climate instability that human civilisation has never experienced. Half of our food is imported, so future food security is at risk from heat extremes, droughts, floods and rising sea levels that will affect crop-producing areas and pollinators. National security will be affected by how countries and communities respond to parts of the world becoming less habitable. Politicians are like other people: most believe climate change is serious but only a minority read and think about it enough to get a feel for just how serious.

Does the civil service analyse the risks in the right way?

The problem is that most information on climate change is produced and communicated as prediction, telling us what is most likely to happen, rather than as risk assessment, which would tell us the worst that could happen.

Few people in government are aware, for example, that the upper limit of sea-level rise against which London could protect itself has been estimated at 5m. A plausible worst-case scenario sees this reached by 2150; long-term, sea-level rise from 2°C global warming is likely to be around 10m. Few people are aware that, in the 2030s, millions of people are likely to encounter conditions of heat and humidity that exceed the body’s limit of tolerance – even if you rest in the shade tipping water over yourself, you would still die of heat stress. 

Can the civil service better convey climate change risks to politicians?

Risk assessment is done well in public policy areas such as counter-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, civil emergencies and public health. We ought to do an equally thorough job of climate change risk assessment. 

That requires the right institutional processes. Three elements are essential: fund research for risk assessment, identifying worst-case impacts; involve people with expertise in risk assessment in interpreting the findings (don’t leave this entirely to scientists, who prefer to err on the side of understatement); summarise the findings in a short and holistic risk assessment that is communicated annually to the prime minister and the cabinet. 

How does policymaking need to change to achieve net zero in time?

With the right ideas and institutions, we can make faster progress without needing greater political will or more money. To upgrade the electricity grid, we need more transmission lines to take clean power from where it is generated to where it is needed, and reforms to planning to make it faster and easier for new solar and wind farms to get connected. The traditional advice of economists is that carbon pricing is the most efficient policy for reducing emissions – but this is a mistake arising from thinking about the problem the wrong way. The transition from horses to cars was not made by taxing horse manure; the internet was not created by putting a tax on letter-writing. Investment in new technologies and their supporting infrastructure and systems is what matters most. We should focus on using targeted investment and regulation to create zero emission solutions, grow their market share, and reduce their costs. We are doing this quite well with renewable power and electric vehicles; we need to do the same in heating, industry, agriculture, shipping and aviation.

What role can the civil service play in this?

The civil service is great at writing strategies; the hard part is putting policies in place and implementing them. The civil service can improve the process of policymaking by changing its analytical tools. Cost-benefit analysis, as the Treasury’s Green Book has recognised, is not appropriate in situations of structural change. Risk opportunity analysis, incorporating qualitative knowledge and systems thinking (done properly, with rigorous analysis) can be a better framework for comparing options. 

How can the civil service facilitate the huge decommissioning strategy associated with net zero?

A low-carbon transition involves rapid innovation and structural change. 

High-carbon assets like coal power plants can be decommissioned by their private sector owners. It’s more of a challenge for government when infrastructure systems need to be decommissioned – when enough of heating and industry has been electrified, it will no longer make economic sense to operate the current gas grid. But the remaining users of gas will not want supplies suddenly cut-off. Scenario planning and modelling will help understand when this situation might arise and how to manage it. 

How do you achieve cross-departmental coordination on climate change?

Coordination between departments is always difficult, but I don’t believe it is the main structural problem facing UK policymaking for the low carbon transition. If there is political will to make policies, Cabinet Office can do the coordination job well enough.

The larger structural problem is the Treasury, which too often uses its disproportionate power over budgets to micromanage policy. The departments responsible for energy, industry, transport, and agriculture have greater expertise in those areas and it’s a waste of public money when that expertise is not fully used and wrong policies get chosen. The Treasury could agree overall budgets with departments but then leave departments free to decide how to spend it.

What do you make of Labour’s climate change plans?

Labour’s commitment to spend significant amounts of money on the low carbon transition is probably helpful, because investment will certainly be needed – an upfront commitment could overcome some of the Treasury-related problems. I’d urge the next government not to overlook the power of regulation to reallocate private capital towards clean technologies quickly and efficiently. We see this in the car industry where regulation is pushing investment into electric vehicles, accelerating improvement and bringing down costs. 

How could Labour’s plans for GB Energy, a clean energy company, be implemented effectively?

I can’t see the need for a publicly-owned electricity company, as the electricity market is already competitive and moving towards clean technologies as fast as regulatory structures allow. I see a potential advantage in government taking an equity stake in small companies developing new technologies that are critical to the transition, such as energy storage. This would help them get the finance they need, and successful investments would yield returns that could be re-invested. The government is the only actor that can legitimately invest in such areas while simultaneously using policy levers to grow the market. This is an underexploited opportunity.

In your book, Five Times Faster, you argue climate change policies are too broad and vague – can policymaking be more focused?

"Climate change diplomacy has been focused on the whole of global emissions – this is like trying to negotiate for world peace or an end to poverty"

Climate change diplomacy has been focused on the whole of global emissions – this is like trying to negotiate for world peace or an end to poverty. To reach substantive agreements, diplomacy has to focus separately on each of the greenhouse gas-emitting sectors of the global economy. Instead of nearly 200 countries at the table, we just need a critical mass. Typically, ten countries account for around 75% of the global market in each sector. 

How might sector-specific emissions cuts, rather than economy-wide ones, be achieved in practice? 

Let’s take steel – a sector usually referred to as ‘hard-to-decarbonise’. The first demonstration projects of near-zero emission steel production are only just being built, so if countries share learning from these projects, successful designs will be identified more quickly. If several large countries act together to use public procurement to create initial demand for near-zero emission steel, this will create a strong incentive for industry to invest in the new technology. And if some of these countries agree low-carbon standards, this will ensure that competition in the global market becomes a driver of the transition, instead of holding it back. 

Are you optimistic the UK can meet its obligations? 

I believe we can meet our targets. Experience shows that when we put the right policies in place, progress is faster than we expect. But we are off-track, so the pace of policymaking has to increase. It’s important to see ourselves in the global context. We can’t meet the UK net zero target on our own and it would be pointless if we did. The only reason to decarbonise the UK economy is to influence and accelerate the decarbonisation of the global economy. 

Read the most recent articles written by Mark Rowe - Greening the way: CSW explores government progress on sustainability targets

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