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LONDON — The U.K. has net zero targets. Now it’s just got to figure out how to get there — fast.
In the space of four years, the U.K.’s legal net zero target has gone from words on paper to a vast national effort touching the lives of everyone in the country. Despite ambitious goals, enshrined in law, some in industry criticize what they see as the lack of a plan to aggressively reduce emissions.
There are only a small number of people who can really shape the path the U.K. takes — and we’ve whittled down that cast of characters to 20 net zero influencers in politics, policy and business.
Some are ardent climate campaigners, some are trying to swing the debate the other way, some sit somewhere in between. And some are just trying to get the nuts and bolts right.
Here’s POLITICO’s 20 people who matter in U.K. net zero policy:
1. Nick Park, Sunak’s energy guru
No, not the Wallace & Gromit guy. Park is No. 10’s energy policy special adviser, the official who has Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ear on this stuff. A former Tory policy wonk, Park helped write the 2010 manifesto’s energy and climate sections. He also has industry experience with seven years in policy and comms jobs at British Gas parent company Centrica in the 2010s and a brief stint as director of global government affairs at U.S. firm Baker Hughes, which makes and maintains equipment for oilfields. So he’s no tree-hugging hippie, it’s fair to say.
A Rishi true-believer, Park worked on Sunak’s leadership campaign in the summer of 2022, while on voluntary leave from his most recent role as a director at lobby firm Public First. While in that role, he wrote a report that argued net zero “remains the best plan” for the U.K. in an era of increased concern about energy security. That insight eased the fears of the green movement. “Coming straight after the Truss period, when there were proper climate denier crazies brought into No. 10, people were relieved,” said one climate lobbyist, granted anonymity to give a frank assessment of the government’s record.
2. Joe Biden, president of states and subsidies
Aren’t we trawling through a U.K. rundown of net zero notability? Yes, but no list of climate influencers would be complete without the man who signed off the most sweeping climate bill in recent U.S. history, nudging his peers across the Atlantic to kick their policies into high gear. Biden’s multi-billion dollar Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes a swathe of climate initiatives to support the development of low carbon technologies, such as electric vehicles and solar power.
The package has spooked the EU into launching its own plan to relax state aid rules and make it easier for low-carbon companies to access tax breaks. The U.K. is less spooked it seems. Hunt has previously insisted he will not go “toe to toe” with Biden’s subsidies and has said the U.K.’s national response to the IRA will not be unveiled until the Autumn statement. Energy Secretary Grant Shapps also dismissed calls for more U.K. subsidies in an interview with POLITICO.
Meanwhile, businesses have called for a hefty U.K. response while Labour has promised to “address the issues that the IRA is addressing in America.” Some U.K. ministers have been critical of what they label Biden’s “protectionist” plans, but the sprawling package has no doubt given Sunak, Shapps and co. something to chew on.
3. Ed Miliband, Labour’s green dynamo
A former Labour leader and one of the few people in Keir Starmer’s top team with actual government experience, Ed Miliband is a political big beast once again.
He’s been the driving force behind much of Labour’s net zero policy, including the proposal for a national energy company, GB Energy, and the plan to halt new oil and gas developments in the North Sea.
Miliband takes inspiration from “Bidenomics” with its focus on green jobs and big state backing for the energy transition. He’s often in contact with Joe Biden’s clean energy adviser John Podesta, aides said.
The party’s planned £28 billion per year spend on green transition policies has been delayed, prompting some to question whether Miliband can keep Opposition leader Keir Starmer and his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves onside with the big-spending vision: a key dynamic to watch as we approach the general election.
4. Grant Shapps, the ENERGY SECURITY (and net zero) secretary
The U.K.’s first ever secretary of state for energy security and net zero likes to point out that, under the U.K.’s climate legislation, he legally can’t go soft on net zero because — in theory — he ”could go to jail” for failing to deliver.
Shapps has, however, leaned into the idea that the way to sell net zero to the public is through its contribution to wider energy security. That’s in tune with the approach of his boss. The prime minister raised eyebrows among green-minded Conservatives when he didn’t include net zero in his “five priorities” for government.
Sunak and Shapps’ analysis, according to one former Conservative energy adviser, is that overt net zero messaging “doesn’t resonate, or doesn’t matter” to voters in lower income areas that the government is trying to keep hold of at the next election.
Whether that’s the right call or not is yet to be seen but Shapps is now going in hard, drawing stark dividing lines between the government’s policy of issuing new licenses for oil and gas development in the North Sea and Labour’s plan to ban new drilling. He told POLITICO that Labour’s approach was a “clear and present danger to the country” that was “bought” by Just Stop Oil — a reference to donations to the Labour party by green entrepreneur Dale Vince, who has also supported the protest group.
5. Chris Stark, net zero taskmaster
As chief executive of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the government’s independent advisers on climate targets, Stark will play a key role in combing through and critiquing the government’s latest net zero strategy update. Stark took on the job in 2018, having previously served as the Scottish government’s director of energy and climate change. Fresh into the new position, Stark led the CCC’s research in recommending a net zero target for the U.K. in 2019, the first to be enshrined into law.
But Stark has since been critical of ministers’ efforts to meet emissions targets. Stark and the CCC have thus far been tight lipped over the government’s fleshed-out net zero package — which was published in March — but the committee’s annual progress report is due on June 28. No doubt, he’ll have more to say then.
6. Emma Pinchbeck, campaigning voice of the sector
When Energy UK poached Pinchbeck from RenewableUK in 2020, it was pretty clear what message they were trying to send. A seasoned political campaigner who headed up WWF UK’s climate change team in the run-up to the Paris Agreement, Pinchbeck has made no secret of her desire for the energy sector to go hell-for-leather in pursuit of carbon neutrality. Her appointment to lead the sector’s trade association reflected a firm attempt by the board to shift their image away from the fossil-fueled past and toward a (theoretical) green future.
A mother of two young children who is refreshingly up front on social media about juggling parenthood with a high-profile lobbying job (excuse the Peppa Pig stickers), Pinchbeck has been an advocate of increasing diversity in what is still a very male, very white sector.
7. Fintan Slye, the man with the grid
Many won’t have heard of the chief executive of National Grid’s Electricity System Operator (ESO) — the legally separate part of National Grid responsible for both the day-to-day operation of the electricity grid and strategic planning. But with the U.K. electricity network set to undergo a huge net zero overhaul in the next few years, Slye’s role could be central.
Getting the grid ready for a world of increased electricity demand (think electric vehicles and heat pumps everywhere) and a realignment of where the U.K. gets its power from (more offshore wind, fewer inland power stations) is one of the key infrastructure hurdles for the U.K. on the road to net zero. Last year the ESO set out a 2030 blueprint called the Holistic Network Design, which would require a whopping £54 billion investment from developers to make it a reality.
The ESO is set to be effectively nationalized in the upcoming Energy Bill — and word in the energy sector is that Slye will continue to lead the new, so-called “Future System Operator,” which will be at the heart of the U.K.’s grid revolution.
8. The protesters
Collectively, the protesters, road-blockers and lockers-on of Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain still have the power to make headlines.
Opinions differ on whether they are good or bad for the net zero agenda — and you can expect the Conservatives to play up protestors’ links with the Labour party at any opportunity, in the hope of portraying the opposition as dangerous radicals (polling suggests the public aren’t especially fond of the protest groups.)
Are they changing Sunak’s mind about net zero policy? Or even Keir Starmer’s? Probably not. But are they still framing the debate and affecting the way the British public thinks about these issues? Too right they are.
9. Joss Garman, the campaigner convenor
The U.K.’s green movement is sprawling but when it comes to climate and net zero, there’s one man at the center of things.
Bristol-based environmentalist Joss Garman is a veteran of the movement at just 38. He co-founded the campaign group Plane Stupid while at university and was arrested more than 20 times for his activism.
A former Labour adviser and Greenpeace UK political director, he’s now a director at the European Climate Foundation, which funds several influential U.K.-based offshoots of the green movement. Think tanks like the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) and Common Wealth, publications like Carbon Brief, and Tory lobby group the Conservative Environment Network all take funding from the ECF. And when green NGOs need to coordinate to influence government, you can bet that it will be Garman firing off the WhatsApp messages and drumming up support.
10. Caroline Lucas, free Green
The former Green leader remains the party’s only MP and probably their only face with widespread name recognition. She’s standing down as an MP at the next election but everyone in the climate movement is curious to see what she’ll do next.
“The very honest answer is I haven’t had a moment to really breathe and to work out how best I can continue to contribute,” Lucas told POLITICO on the day she announced her decision to step down. But she said her determination to combat “the climate and nature emergencies” was undimmed.
It remains to be seen whether the Greens can replace her — or even add to their tally of seats at the next election. But they made serious headway at the local elections in May, winning over 200 seats and gaining control of a local authority for the first time, ousting 155 Tory councilors in the process. Labour — who are always vulnerable to losing left-leaning voters to the Greens — will be watching their progress particularly closely.
11. Nigel Farage, Euroskeptic turned net zero-skeptic
He’s not an MP, he doesn’t lead a political party anymore, what on Earth is Nigel Farage doing on this list? Like him or loathe him, the evidence of the past decade has been that where Farage goes, the Tory party often follows. First it was Brexit, then it was the “small boats.” Now, net zero is featuring more and more often in the former UKIP leader’s GB News and social media rants.
The talking points are fairly familiar — the cost to ordinary people of installing heat pumps, the fact that China’s still burning loads of coal so why should we bother? But Farage thinks his arguments will gain more traction when the “impracticalities” of achieving net zero — as he puts it — come to the fore in the next few years. “Whenever politicians collectively agree around one point, they’re almost always wrong in history,” he told POLITICO.
12. David Attenborough, Britain’s green conscience
Since the death of the Queen, there is no figure in public life who commands near-universal respect as completely as David Attenborough.
“The remarkable hero [of U.K. climate action] must be David Attenborough,” said outgoing Climate Change Committee chair John Gummer. “You can’t take away from the fact that he’s done so much to remind people of the realities of what has happened. And he has done it in a way which is acceptable to the public.”
It’s perhaps striking to note that less than two years ago, the U.K. government was hosting COP26 in Glasgow, putting Attenborough front and center with his uncompromising message about the horrors of a heating planet and its ramifications for life on Earth.
Now, although the policies haven’t changed, the messaging certainly has. Attenborough, 97, tends to stay out of the realm of pure politics. But the admiration in which he’s held is a potent reminder to politicians that the British public cares about this stuff — and anything he says on the subject can still make waves.
13. Chris Skidmore, the net zero crusader
The Conservative MP for Kingswood secured his place in British political history when, as energy minister in 2019, he signed the U.K.’s 2050 net zero target into law.
Since then he’s been on something of a crusade to keep the government honest on its green goals, both inside the tent when Liz Truss (remember her) appointed him to write a review of net zero policy, and outside. Since the influential review was published, he’s been a keen scrutinizer of the Energy Bill, which is due to become law before summer recess. He campaigned for — and got — a commitment from government to give the energy regulator Ofgem a net zero duty.
Skidmore, who is standing down as an MP before the next election, is now tipped as a possible contender to succeed John Gummer as chair of the Climate Change Committee when the latter stands down at the end of June.
14. Gary Smith, the North Sea’s shop steward
It was a battle that was always coming for Labour. The party’s plan to block new oil and gas developments in the North Sea has run up against staunch union opposition from both Unite and, most vocally, GMB, who fear that the green transition will leave some fossil fuel workers behind.
GMB General Secretary Gary Smith has been a union man since he was an apprentice gas worker at 16. In recent days he’s railed against Labour’s policy, labelling it a “huge mistake” at the union’s annual conference in sunny Brighton earlier in June.
Interestingly, Smith is taking tips from the U.S., having met members of Biden’s administration and American trade union reps in Washington earlier this year to discuss the energy transition, before feeding his findings back to Labour. “They believe in plans not bans,” he told the conference.
GMB are also watching government (and Labour) policy on heat pumps as replacements for gas boilers in homes — warning in March that “the road to net zero can’t be paved with the livelihoods of tens of thousands of gas workers.” Another row brewing for Labour as they aim for government.
15. Shirine Khoury-Haq, business’ net zero liaison
As group chief executive of the retail chain, The Co-Operative Group, and now co-chair of the Net Zero Council, Shirine Khoury-Haq will likely emerge as a key figure in carving out the role of big business in the net zero transition. The Council, which boasts big names from the world of banking, tech and energy, was established to allow businesses to weigh in on net zero. “It is vital that all businesses actively contribute to the net zero journey with vigor, as failure to seize this opportunity simply cannot be an option,” she said in the wake of the Council’s first meeting on May 9.
A former executive at Lloyd’s of London — as well as having completed stints at the house builder Persimmon, tech company IBM, the Post Office and McDonald’s — Khoury-Haq is well placed to help businesses navigate net zero.
16. Greg Jackson, clean fuel CEO
As founder and chief executive of the green energy company Octopus, Greg Jackson is one to watch as renewable energy becomes a greater source of our heat and light. Octopus — which he founded in 2015 — is already connecting 5.3 million customers across 14 countries to green energy sources and boasts a £6 billion portfolio of renewable projects, including a £5 million investment in the world’s longest subsea power cable stretching from the U.K. to Morocco.
But Jackson has also been critical of the U.K.’s progress on renewable projects — such as onshore wind — and has called for planning reform in order to make it easier to green up the grid. He’s warned that the U.K. is going “backwards” on renewables whilst the US, bolstered by its green IRA package, speeds ahead, and called for an overhaul of the grid system. Jackson recently said he doesn’t get invited to dinner parties because he’s “too opinionated” — but he does seem to get invited to speak on the telly a lot.
17. Sadiq Khan, mayor, author, pollution campaigner
… and breathe. Next up is Sadiq Khan, former Labour MP and current mayor of London. Conveniently, that’s the title of his new book, a handbook for tackling climate change and air pollution. A sufferer of adult onset asthma, the mayor has been particularly vocal about tackling London’s grimy air during his time in City Hall. He has pledged to make London net zero by 2030 and is known for introducing Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZs) across the metropolis. The mayor has indicated he wants to expand the zones this August, a move which has been criticized by some local councils and the Prime Minister.
A former Labour MP, it will be interesting to see how Khan tackles the job should he — and Labour — win their respective elections. The mayor recently told The News Agents podcast that he would push a Labour government to give more power to local mayors. In the same podcast, Khan ruled out returning to parliament, but that’s not to say his ideas aren’t catching the eye of policymakers in Westminster.
18. Jesse Norman, minister for charge points
In the U.K. the biggest single sector in terms of carbon emissions is transport — which makes DfT minister Jesse Norman’s “decarbonisation and technology” brief a key part of the net zero policy puzzle.
While the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) is supposed to act as a coordinating department for all net zero efforts across government, a lot of the real, meaty decisions sit with individual departments. That’s the case for the rollout of electric vehicle infrastructure, which is found in Norman’s brief.
His task: to facilitate the U.K.’s target of banning the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars in just seven years’ time. It’s a big job for a minister who also manages to knock out the odd novel on the side. And if he’s looking for inspiration on getting complex policy challenges solved fast, he can just ask his wife: former U.K. vaccine taskforce czar Kate Bingham.
19. Alok Sharma, the ghost of COP26
As COP26 President, Sharma brokered the Glasgow Climate Pact, in which nations doubled down on commitments made in the Paris Agreement to keep 1.5C degrees of warming within reach.
“In his quiet and effective way, he got more out of Glasgow than anyone thought possible. His enormous energy was really very remarkable,” said CCC chair Gummer.
His emotional statement at the close of the conference, when a key objective to “phase out” coal was watered down at the last minute, was for many the abiding image of the summit. Ever since, Sharma has pushed the government on its net zero goals, recently criticizing the decision to open a new coal mine in the U.K.
What’s next? He has been tipped for the CCC chairmanship, but aides said that he has not applied. He will, however, continue to be prominent on the international climate scene and recently took on a role focusing on international climate finance at U.S. philanthropic giant the Rockefeller Foundation.
20. Wera Hobhouse, don’t forget the Lib Dems
Should Labour win the election but miss out on its coveted parliamentary majority, suddenly the Lib Dems will matter a lot to the U.K.’s energy future.
Their climate spokesperson is Bath MP Hobhouse, a German-born former artist, teacher and radio journalist who was elected in 2017. Lib Dem policy is to boost funding for wind, solar and marine power, pass more power to local authorities to invest in renewables, lower the energy price cap and insulate homes — so there’s plenty for the two parties to agree on in the event of a pact with Labour. However, Hobhouse has described herself as a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner — whereas Labour fully backs atomic power as part of the net zero energy mix.
Hobhouse and her boss — former energy secretary Ed Davey — will no doubt have more to say as we race towards the election.