What the UK’s top climate scientist wants from the next government
Last updated Apr 9, 2024
Photo of Harrogate resident Professor Piers Forster, who is interim chair of the government's Climate Change Committee.
Prof Piers Forster

There can’t be many people whose grasp of environmental issues is broader than Professor Piers Forster’s. Locally, he’s patron of Zero Carbon Harrogate and has campaigned against the expansion of Harrogate Spring Water’s bottling plant, but in his day job he operates at a different scale altogether.  

He’s professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds and director of the university’s Priestley Centre for Climate Futures, and since 2018 he’s also been interim chair of the government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), representing the UK at the COP28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai last year. As a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he was instrumental in getting the world to aim for a global warming limit of 1.5°C and helped persuade the UK government to adopt its Net Zero 2050 target.

One week he can be talking about saving saplings in Rotary Wood, the next he’ll be advising on global carbon reduction targets.

When the Stray Ferret spoke to him at his home in Harrogate, he’d just got back from Oslo; in a couple of months he’ll be off to Bonn, in December it’s Azerbaijan, and at some point he expects to go to Beijing for bilateral talks with the Chinese government’s advisers. 

The irony of someone with his brief jetting off around the world is not lost on him. He said: 

“I fly for work because I’m an international climate scientist, but I am now more conscious of whether I really have to get on an aeroplane. 

“I’m not at all perfect, but I have become more conscious of my green carbon footprint over time. We have an old diesel car. We could have an electric car, but I don’t drive the car at all, really. I drive it once every four months. 

“I walk into town, I take public transport to work at the University of Leeds and go down to Westminster on the train. I walk to the supermarket to get the exercise. 

“My wife’s Australian and going back there has a big carbon footprint, but I do not think that preventing people from going to see their family around the world or escape the wet, dreary winter… I think it’d be very difficult to say ‘You can’t do that’.” 

It is this sense of pragmatism – a practical approach rooted in an appreciation of the world as it is – that politicians across the spectrum value, and is perhaps why Prof Forster is still in post at the CCC six years after he was appointed to it temporarily. 

He also appears to be a glass-half-full kind of climate scientist, a tendency that always goes down better than doom-mongering, which inevitably implies reducing services or spending more money. 

He said: 

“We see wildfires in Portugal and Spain and we’re beginning to see them coming to this country now. We’ve had incredibly high temperatures in Canada, we had huge fires sweeping across California, and they shut down Silicon Valley for a bit. We’ve seen drought in China that meant they couldn’t supply water to their industries, so they had to shut them down for a bit too.

“If you look at the UK, we get off better than virtually any other country, and yet we’ve had by far the wettest winter ever recorded. Flooding is the greatest threat for us.

“But I’m an optimist. I think we have the ability to stop this. We’re not on track, of course, to hit our targets, but we’re also not completely off track. With concerted effort we can get back on track.

“We ought to be able to build more resilient infrastructure, and there’s opportunity now with the whole Net Zero transition thing, with brand-new grid and energy storage and offshore and onshore wind, or onshore solar. We do have the opportunity to try and make our towns and countryside more resilient.”

Photo of Harrogate resident Professor Piers Forster, who is interim chair of the government's Climate Change Committee, at the meeting in Incheon, South Korea, to approve the ​IPCC's 1.5C report in 2018.

Prof Piers Forster at the meeting in Incheon, South Korea, to approve the ​IPCC’s 1.5°C report in 2018.

While the benefits to the environment of developing a more sustainable economy are clear, he says that there are business opportunities that could further incentivise their development. He said: 

“It’s going to be challenging for the SMEs – they’re going to struggle with all the red tape, so we have to try and make it easy and support them to change. But for our other industries, especially the financial-type service industries, there are big opportunities, not only to support decarbonisation here, but also decarbonisation around the world, for example, we can reduce the cost of borrowing to build renewable energy in, say, Nigeria.” 

A prerequisite of Prof Forster’s CCC role is that he remains broadly apolitical, lest the credibility of his advice be compromised by perceived partiality.

But he does worry that, faced with the apparently conflicting priorities of high office, governments often tend to do far less than they say they do. For example, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, recently said that government plans to build new gas-fired power stations were in line with the recommendations of the CCC, which has said a “small amount” of gas generation without carbon capture is compatible with a decarbonised power system.

Prof Forster said:

“That’s technically correct, but it’s all about the quantities. We need to talk about the trajectories. In the 2035 timeframe he spoke about – that’s only a 10-year timeframe – we think there’ll be instances where we do need to get a little bit of electricity generation from gas. But if you look at the quantities of it, its tiny. It’s only about 1 or 2% of the country’s energy supply. So it does almost completely disappear by our 2035 target. After that time, we expect to go completely to renewables potentially, but that will take a bit more time. Basically, the amount of gas we need in this country is expected to decline, and decline very significantly.”

Taking the difficult decisions on climate change is not something every government is willing to do, but which one would be best placed – or most able – to do that is not something that Prof Forster, as arguably the country’s foremost climate scientist, can comment on. But he said: 

“I can’t say which party would be best for the environment, but I definitely would say that whichever party gets in, they have to get on with it.  

“What I’m a bit worried about currently is the things that need to be done. For example, we had an announcement just recently saying that they’re going to delay the clean heat market mechanism. This is to make air-source heat-pumps much more attractive compared with gas boilers, and just by delaying it and trying to call for one more consultation, it kicks the whole thing slightly into the long grass. Quite a lot of things are being kicked into the long grass.  

“Exactly the same thing is happening with bio-energy and carbon capture, with a big pipeline going into the North Sea.  

“On these very big decisions, we need to see a government that is bold enough to do it.” 

Those “very big decisions” span a wide range of policy areas. In agriculture, he’d like to see less farmland given over to cattle and more reforested, in housing he’d like all newbuilds to be fitted with an air-source heat-pump to head off the necessity of retrofitting them in 20 years’ time, and he’d like HS2 and the Trans-Pennine high-speed lines built too. He said: 

Whatever big infrastructure the government can build that is sustainable is a really good thing to do.

“Remember all the fuss about building the Channel Tunnel, and how much it cost? We can’t survive without it now, and that is a really good thing for our economy, ultimately. These things are worth it.” 

He adds: 

“You have to come up with a solution that works for everyone. You have to be quite pragmatic, and I think the more we can be based on the evidence and the more we can try and take the political shenanigans out of it, I think that is ultimately the way to get to where you want to go.” 

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