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Stark Realities: ‘There’s a Big Delivery Challenge that’s Not Addressed by Coming to Dubai and Setting New Targets’

Chris Stark of the Climate Change Committee says the ‘acid test’ of COP28 is how it deals with fossil fuels

Chris Stark COP 28
Chris Stark, Climate Change Committee CEO, speaking at COP28 side event. Photo: Stuart Spray

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As head of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), Chris Stark is responsible for advising the Government on emission targets and reporting to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

CCC’s most recent report on the progress towards the UK reaching NetZero highlighted the Government’s of a lack of urgency in reducing emissions and classified confidence in it meeting its 2030 reduction in GHG targets as “low”. 

Last month, Stark accused the Government of sending the wrong message to consumers and the world by backing off on its commitment to net zero following Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement that he was delaying the ban of sales of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030 to 2035 and 20% of households would be exempt from a new gas boiler ban.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is an annual event where global leaders, climate change experts, charities and representatives from local communities meet to discuss and agree on solutions to tackle climate change. However, COPs in the past have been criticised for allowing fossil fuel lobbyists to join the talks. Last year Global Witness reported that there were twice as many fossil fuel lobbyists as delegates from the official UN constituency for indigenous peoples attending COP27. 

Rishi Sunak attended this year’s conference, COP28, held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, for just half a day, reportedly spending more time in his private jet travelling to and from the event than he did in discussions. Labour leader Keir Starmer was in Dubai for three days. 

Byline Times spoke to Stark on day six of the conference. 


What do you hope COP28 will achieve?

Well, we have a COP every year. And here we are in Dubai. You can get overoptimistic about COPs but I’m a realist. Every COP is about moving on a little bit. 

I think we’ve already achieved a lot of the things I hoped for in this COP. Notably the Loss and Damage Fund, which has now got money in it, acknowledging the fact that there has been loss and damage in parts of the world that haven’t caused the problem of climate change. That’s a big win.

I think it’s easy to forget how much progress has been made in loss and damage in the last couple of years. This was a thing that was difficult to discuss at all before Glasgow and COP26. And we are now at the point where not only have we acknowledged the problem, we’ve actually got money going into a fund, including from Scotland and the UK. 

I think that these are important moments. But of course, the sums involved don’t even touch the side and we probably do need to get into a bigger discussion about what we’re doing with climate finance and how we wrap together some of the various streams. Not just with separate pots for loss and damage, for adaptation and for reducing emissions, but actually dealing with the issue of climate change in the round.  And not just through token sums, but actually driving real flows of finance which involves private finance as much as much as it does publicly funded finance.

Future COPs are going to have to really wrestle with the quantum of that, which is nowhere near the sums that we’ve talked about so far. 

The next thing for me is whether we get landed now some global agreements on growing renewables, improving energy efficiency and this crucial language around fossil fuel phase out or phase down. Whether we see that in a final text after this COP. I think that’s a really, really important thing. 

But I think the main thing with the COP is that there people here meeting and doing important things. And this in another COP that has proved that it’s worth having. 

Are you saying COP28 is already a success? 

No, I don’t think you can say it’s a success until you know where you are at the end of it. This COP continues the tradition that we that we established in Glasgow in COP26, which is that you have national negotiations going on. It is very, very important to do that. 

But alongside it, these ambition statements that come from outside of the national pledges are increasing about cementing the idea that we can be ambitious. You can think about the national targets, the national pledges, as raising the minimum, raising the floor. We need alongside that things that are about pushing out the maximum, pushing out the ceiling, doing more in certain areas.

This cop has been pretty good at landing some of those things so far. I think we need to see more on that. And this is going to be a COP that deals with fossil fuels in some shape or form. The acid test to whether it’s been a success is going to be at the end and what we say about the fossil fuel phase out.

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In recent months the UK’s Conservative Government has rowed back on many of its green commitments with PM Rishi Sunak accused of abandoning the fight against climate change. How confident are you that a Labour government would do any better? 

I’m very fortunate to not have to guess what’s going to happen in politics. We [CCC] are here to provide advice to the Government, whatever colour that Government is. I would say the same thing to a Labour government as I say to the present Conservative government: “You’ve got a lot to do.”

There’s a big, big delivery challenge here and it’s not going to be addressed by coming to Dubai and setting new targets or putting new numbers into play.

You’ve actually got to start delivering stuff. So I think that regardless of what happens at the next election, the story of UK leadership on climate is going to be much more about whether we actually deliver against these big targets than it is about setting new pledges. And that’s not something that Government typically has been that good at, of any colour, in the last 15 to 20 years, except in a couple of areas.

So what I would like to see from any future government is that we have a few more things to celebrate when it comes to actual delivery on the ground, things changing. Because for me, that’s the best story that we can bring to a COP. That UK leadership means actually delivering what you pledge.  It’s about much more than just having the ambition in the first place.

That is the best message for places like China, India, Indonesia – those places that have weak targets but look like they’re over-delivering. We need to be the country that shows you have high ambition and that you deliver against it. And that’s not really about party politics. 

QQQQ How do you think Scotland’s new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, is shaping up with regards to tackling climate change?

The last First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and was very, very keen on talking about climate change and raising the ambition for Scotland to tackle it.

I have to say I’m quite happy with the new First Minister and the things that he said on climate. I met him yesterday at the COP. He’s been here for a few days in Dubai and I think that’s a very good sign. But the most important thing about what Scotland is doing is that we are way off track for the targets that were set in law in Scotland.

And that means that we have to be critical of what’s happening in terms of Scottish Government policies. In particular, the pledge to reduce emissions by 75% by 2030 is a really big target for Scotland and we are not seeing the kind of policy program from the Scottish Government that will allow me to be confident that’s going to be met.

The test of whether the new First Minister is serious on climate isn’t that he’s willing to put a couple of million quid into the Loss and Damage Fund, good as that is, it’s the story of delivery at home. That’s the story of real Scottish leadership. Are we actually going to hit these targets and through what means are we going to see the policies put in place that drive the action that we need in Scotland to drive emissions down?

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We are already seeing the effects of climate change worldwide. Climate scientists are warning that, on our current track, global average temperatures by the end of the century could rise to almost double the amount that nations sign up to in the Paris Agreement. What plans are being discussed at COP to protect people, the environment and infrastructure from the predicted increases in floods, heat waves and severe weather events at home and abroad?

I think every COP we hear a louder and louder voice around the issue of how we deal with climate change itself. And that is often set against the desire to be more ambitious in future emissions reductions to keep the temperature down. But actually, I think you can bring these two things together. 

In our own work in the Climate Change Committee in the UK, what we’ve been talking about recently is achieving net zero in a warming climate.  And that means bringing together the issues of mitigation and adaptation. The COP process isn’t very good at handling that. But this is the COP where we do the global stocktake. What does that tell us? It tells us that we’re way off track for where we need to be in 2030. Instead of reducing emissions by 40% plus by 2030, we might reduce that by 2%.

So we are going to have to grapple with higher temperatures in the future. Those higher temperatures actually make it harder to get to net zero. Bringing these two things together isn’t some sort of nice thing to have, you absolutely must do the two things together or you won’t be successful in either mitigation or adaptation.

So again, I think it is a story here about the UK doing this well. If we are one of the countries in the world that brings those two themes together and shows you how you can put successful strategies in place,  that buys us this kind of precious climate leadership that you sometimes hear our UK leaders talk about.

A new report launched at COP28 by Earth Insight highlights the increasing threats from fossil fuel expansion on protected areas around the world including the Amazon, Congo Basin and national parks such as Murchison Falls and Virunga in East Africa. How concerned are you about these threats?

It’s really important that we don’t forget that nature. 

We’re in the COP, we’re here to talk about climate change. What do we know about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change? Well, we know that we don’t need any more fossil fuels. The available [oil and gas] reserves that we have at the moment are in places where you wouldn’t want them if you cared about things like nature. The last thing we need is to open up even more of those places.

We do need to protect nature alongside the challenge of reducing emissions and phasing out fossil fuels. This, so far in various COPs, hasn’t been an easy discussion. I think the additional way in which this impacts important areas of natural beauty and nature globally is that you’ve also got this new dynamic of offsetting, which is in itself an extension of the oil and gas regime. 

So we need to see more and more of the language that you might see discussed in the other COP that we have around nature brought into the climate COP now so that we can build in that kind of protection into the things that are agreed at this COP and the next one and the one after it.


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