Learning the lessons of the UK’s net zero transition

By Climate Champions | April 16, 2024

Chris Skidmore guest Q&A


Chris Skidmore OBE speaks at New York Climate Week, September 2023. Copyright: Climate Group.


As a former UK energy minister, Chris Skidmore OBE signed into law the country’s commitment to curtail emissions to net zero by 2050. Chris went on to lead an independent Net Zero Review, Mission Zero, which set out the ‘historic opportunity’ offered by net zero. The Review travelled to all four nations of the UK, received over 1,800 responses to the Call for Evidence, and held more than 50 roundtables, making it one of the largest national engagement exercises on net zero. It described net zero as the “economic opportunity of the 21st century”, highlighting that the supply of goods and services to enable the global net zero transition could be worth GBP 1tn to UK businesses by 2030.

We spoke to Chris about advocating for net zero inside the Government – and the need for key  stakeholders, from business, to investors and cities – to engage with governments as they prepare the new phase of climate plans (Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). 

How have you supported the global net zero transition?

Nearly five years ago when I was the UK’s Energy and Clean Growth Minister, I had an opportunity to sign into law the UK’s commitment to curtail emissions to net zero by 2050. The UK was the first G7 country to make that legislative commitment, so it was a landmark  moment. Back then, no one really expected that over the following five years, 92% of global GDP would be represented by a net zero target of some form, as it is today. To understand how the UK could best meet its climate commitments, the then Prime Minister commissioned an independent Net Zero review, which turned into the 340 page Mission Zero report, that sets out the ‘whole of society’ opportunity offered by the transition.  

Ever since then, I’ve been working to research and articulate the benefits and opportunities of net zero – not just as a means to reduce emissions, which is critical – but also to highlight the economic opportunity offered by the transition, in terms of growth, jobs and regeneration. 

We’re living in a moment where we need leaders to take important strategic decisions, such as setting an end date for the use of fossil fuels. To phase out fossil fuels demands not just a reduction in demand – it’s also about reducing supply, through a just transition to clean technologies that grows economies, and takes communities with us. 

Overall, I use my position as a former Energy Minister who was responsible for net zero in the UK, to galvanize support for the transition. I use every waking moment to speak to policymakers and community stakeholders about key opportunities of the transition – and help groups to understand the massive opportunity that it represents.

National governments are currently preparing new climate plans. What do you hope to see from the new round of NDCs?

One of the key outcomes of the Global Stocktake that culminated at COP 28, was the recognition that the next round of climate plans, or ‘NDCs’, should be far more granular than before. Every country came forward with their commitments in Glasgow, but there was a huge variation in the detail of those documents. Many of the NDCs that governments submitted were only words on a page showing designated emissions reduction commitments – without much detail on how the 2030 commitments would be reached. But now, with just over five years until 2030, this is a major opportunity for countries to set out ambitious plans – that not only demonstrate how emissions reduction targets can be met – but also explain the roles and responsibilities of sectors for tackling their fair share of emissions. This doesn’t have to be an imposition on sectors, it’s a great chance to drive wholesale decarbonization and efficiency measures, and to identify projects which are ripe for investment. 

Some countries have woken up to the opportunity. They’re not only planning ambitious NDCs – they’re also setting out plans to crowd-in inward investment. For example, I just returned from the UNEP Buildings and Climate Global Forum in Paris, where I joined a roundtable with Kenyan Cabinet Secretary Wahome, who made it clear that Kenya is using its NDC to drive further ambition internally; while also raising the confidence of external investors by showing a clear direction of travel. 

This is a really exciting moment. I’m personally keen to use my experience of the UK Net Zero Review to encourage other countries to run similar procedures as part of the process of shaping and socialising their new NDCs. To build net zero economies it’s vital to fully engage communities – not just as a means to producing an NDC document at COP. To succeed, leaders should get out there to really ‘sell’ their net zero plans, by showing how their commitments can act as the guardrails for the transformation of their economies.

Why is it important for governments to see and hear from the climate community during this NDC countdown phase?

I found it incredibly important as a UK Minister to know that – as a Government – we weren’t just ‘going it alone’ on net zero. If organizations with a large manufacturing and employee base were able to demonstrate their plans to increase productivity and jobs through the transition that really helped to assure bold policymaking to support them. As a politician, you can’t measure the outcomes of policy just on the metric of carbon dioxide reductions, as not all stakeholders fully grasp those benefits yet. What they do notice, however, is when major companies clearly and impactfully signal their trajectory, like when Jaguar Land Rover announced its intention to build a £4 billion gigafactory for electric vehicle batteries in the UK. 

The involvement of regional actors – whether businesses, or local governments, are also critical to show the ‘place-based’ transitions to net zero. For example, UK company, Reckitt, has committed to net zero – and importantly they’re also supporting the decarbonisation of the city of Hull where the company was founded. Hull is the UK’s largest emitting industrial cluster, and the second largest industrial emitter of CO2, after the Ruhr Valley in Europe. So, the company is working to accelerate Hull’s progress toward net zero by encouraging cooperation among local businesses and lending a supportive hand to organizations to decarbonise the Hull ecosystem as a whole.

Operationalising net zero is all about coalition building, it’s about demonstrating strength in numbers and showing the path to the future. Businesses now recognize the investment opportunities and – on the flip-side, the risk of standing still, which leads to stranded assets, stranded jobs and stranded businesses. 

We’re living through a revolutionary time. The more people can get out there and explain that net zero equates to growth – and that change should not be feared, but embraced – the faster we can accelerate the transition, and the more value will be generated. 

Too many companies are participating in ‘green hushing’ – quietly implementing their climate commitments, but behind closed doors. That’s a huge mistake. By providing evidence of their commitment and action, companies can fuel engagement with stakeholders – from suppliers, to investors and employees. A  major upside is that entire ecosystems can advance towards net zero, while transparent engagement also makes supply chain relationships less transactional, deepening partnerships across sectors.

This is an historic, once-in-a-generation moment, like the introduction of electricity – where new ways of thinking are going to advance productivity, efficiency and opportunities for prosperity. I want that to happen in the UK and all over the world.

Around the world there are bright spots of momentum on decarbonization, how can this be ramped up?

Legislation and regulation has a vital role to play, we can’t rely solely on a voluntary process. But equally policymakers have a major role to play in identifying where support is needed. The UK’s Net Zero Review, for instance, focused on working with companies to understand how far they could go – and to examine key barriers, the debris on the tracks, that must be removed for them to meet their goals.

The UK has a range of high level targets, such as building 70 gigawatts of solar for 2035, and a net zero power grid by 2035. Many other countries are also making similar commitments – so we need a great collaborative effort to prevent all of the different aims from competing against one another. The key is to unlock radical collaboration. For example, in March 2024, the European Council adopted the European Critical Raw Materials Act mandating that at least 10 percent of EU critical raw materials be mined and 40 percent processed in Europe by 2030. Initiatives like this help to meet the demand for batteries, and solar panels, preventing companies being pitted against one another in competitive bids. Issues like this will not stop the transition, but if they’re not considered properly, they will slow down our progress.

Overall, there needs to be a major focus on delivering value through the transition. It’s not just about delivering on energy security, net zero is about creating industries of the future. It’s not just about reducing emissions, but creating new economies.

How can the UK support the global net zero transition?

What’s been really important since COP 26, Glasgow is the Breakthrough Agenda. The initial five breakthroughs were expanded at COP 28, with the launch of the Buildings Breakthrough mission led by France and Morocco, plus the Steel Breakthrough, and the Cement & Concrete Breakthrough. 

These horizontal approaches enable collaboration between countries and the UK Net Zero Review showed policy development for the built environment can drive real impact. I recently produced the ‘Building the Future’ report which was launched at the UNEP Global Climate and Buildings conference in Paris, which shows the opportunity for countries to collaborate around shared standards, which is an important area where the UK can really help.

Where the UK has a real opportunity is in forging net zero standards and regulations which other countries can benefit from. If you look at countries across the world, 35 countries representing 30% of global emissions don’t have building codes, which is a barrier to standardization and in turn, efficiency. In the U.S. for example, the building code for Boston differs from the building code for New York. So, there are opportunities for the UK to create high integrity standards that can lead to the future development of net zero homes and buildings.

Increasingly new building standards are driving emissions reductions in the UK, such as certified net zero buildings. We’re also seeing existing buildings being repurposed, instead of knocked down, as well as the introduction of new, innovative approaches to reusing materials such as steel girders. 

And when it comes to renewable power, there are some fantastic UK community projects. For example, the Ambition Community Energy in Bristol injects profits from the turbine into the community in Lawrence Weston, as well as reducing energy bills. Also, the Bristol City Leap is a project co-led by the Mayor of Bristol to decarbonize the city’s district heating system,which is attracting nearly GBP 500 million to decarbonize the whole city. 

These projects are not just about decarbonization and producing energy. They’re about actually really exciting communities about the future. They’re not just about reducing emissions, decarbonization is actually about improving the overall quality of housing and community structures. 

In the UK, we’re good at creating business models for decarbonisation. For example, the UK Contracts for Difference policy approach in support of offshore wind is world-leading – and many countries, including the US, are seeking to emulate it. Also, the UK was also a major contributor to the Emissions Trading Scheme. So, through the opportunities of the Breakthrough Agenda, I’m optimistic about the UK’s ability to create high quality policy frameworks and standards for the future – as well as to offer high quality research and innovation, through the UK’s world-leading university sector.

Rt Hon Chris Skidmore OBE

Chris Skidmore was the UK’s Energy Minister responsible for signing the UK’s net zero commitment into law in 2019. After leading ‘Mission Zero: The Net Zero Review’, which was published in January 2023, Chris established the influential Mission Zero Coalition..

Chris was a UK Member of Parliament between 2010 to 2024, serving in five government departments, also as Science, Research and Innovation Minister, Universities Minister, Health Minister and Minister for the Constitution. 

Chris has also been a Senior Fellow (2021-23) at the Harvard Kennedy School, is a Visiting Fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and a Professor of Practice in Net Zero Policy at Bath University. He was appointed as an Officer of the British Empire in 2022 for services to parliament.