Net zero has become unhelpful slogan, says outgoing head of UK climate watchdog

<span>‘It’s strange that some see heat pumps as an enemy of the people,’ Stark said. </span><span>Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures/Getty Images</span>
‘It’s strange that some see heat pumps as an enemy of the people,’ Stark said. Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures/Getty Images

The concept of “net zero” has become a political slogan used to start a “dangerous” culture war over the climate, and may be better dropped, the outgoing head of the UK’s climate watchdog has warned.

Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), said sensible improvements to the economy and people’s lives were being blocked by a populist response to the net zero label, and he would be “intensely relaxed” about losing the term.

“Net zero has definitely become a slogan that I feel occasionally is now unhelpful, because it’s so associated with the campaigns against it,” he said. “That wasn’t something I expected.”

Politicians on all sides are now wary of associating themselves with the term, he said, which was inhibiting progress. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, made several policy U-turns last year, including delaying the changeover to electric vehicles, while the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, watered down a promise to invest £28bn a year in a green economy.

“It’s the culture warriors who have really taken against it,” said Stark. “A small group of politicians or political voices has moved in to say that net zero is something that you can’t afford, net zero is something that you should be afraid of … But we’ve still got to reduce emissions. In the end, that’s all that matters.”

The real fight was to make the UK’s economy competitive with other countries that were investing heavily in renewable energy, electric vehicles and other green technologies that were the focus of innovation and investment around the world, he said.

“If it [net zero] is only a slogan, if it is seen as a sort of holding pen for a whole host of cultural issues, then I’m intensely relaxed about dropping it,” he said. “We keep it as a scientific target, but we don’t need to use it as a badge that we keep on every programme.”

Stark gave the example of heat pumps, which have been demonised in some quarters despite offering a low-carbon and potentially low-cost alternative to gas boilers.

“It’s very strange that some see heat pumps as an enemy of the people,” he said, in an interview with the Guardian before leaving his post this Friday. “This is a remarkably sensible technology that we’ve known about for a long time, a straightforward technology to put in your house to keep it warm, or to keep it cool in the summer. But in this country, they’ve taken on a totally different totemic role, as a technology that is being somehow forced upon the populace. I think that’s very dangerous.”

Policymakers should focus instead on what lies behind net zero – investment in the UK’s economy, in ways that would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but cut energy use, improve national security, clean up the air and protect nature and the countryside, he added.

“We are talking about cleaning up the economy and making it more productive – you can call that anything you like,” Stark said.

He has been chief executive of the CCC, the statutory body that advises government under the 2008 Climate Change Act, since 2018, under the chair John Gummer (Lord Deben), the former Conservative environment minister. Stark, who will move to the Carbon Trust, a consultancy set up by the government to help businesses cut emissions, leaves at a time when the organisation is without a permanent chair, as Deben left last year and the devolved governments have rejected the Tories’ choice as the new chair.

Tackling the climate crisis has been presented as a massive change, but Stark was at pains to point out that it would not be. “The world that we’ll have in 2050 is extremely similar to the one we have now. We will still be flying, we’ll still be eating meat, we will still be warming our homes, just heating them differently,” he said. “The lifestyle change that goes with this is not enormous at all.”

But it was not just those who were against climate action who were causing the problem, according to Stark. Climate activists were also alarming people, he warned, and creating “quite a serious barrier to large parts of the political spectrum to support climate action” by forceful protests, and presenting environmental policies as radical.

“It would be more helpful if they were less divisive,” he said. “I don’t think it is radical. It’s really important that we stop using words like that, as it is understandably frightening.”

Politicians could design measures so the costs were borne by those best able to shoulder them and people on lower incomes were also able to take advantage of home insulation, heat pumps and other ways of reducing energy bills. “We do need a policy package that is fair,” he said.

Stark pointed to China, the US and the EU, which are all investing heavily in low-carbon technologies that are cheaper or becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. People should not listen to trying to delay the transition, he said. “We will regret going slow in this transition, because we’ll be missing out on the economic benefits of it.”