Climate chief accused of obfuscation after staff told to “kill” negative net zero story

The outgoing head of the Government’s climate watchdog told officials to “kill” a negative net zero story with “technical language”, FOI documents reveal.

The outgoing head of the Government’s climate watchdog told officials to “kill” a negative net zero story with “technical language”, FOI documents reveal.

As reported by the Telegraph, Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), drafted the response when asked for clarity over claims of a “mistake” made by the body.

“How’s this – kill it with some technical language,” he told his team.

Mr Stark, a senior public servant whose pay package amounts to more than £170,000 per year, is bound by the Nolan Principles of Public Life, which require ‘objectivity’ (i.e., “holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit”), ‘openness’ (“[i]nformation should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so”), and ‘accountability’ (“holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this”).

Mr Stark’s comments were made in private emails exchanged within the CCC after the Telegraph contacted the body for a response to a planned article in January.

The article reported a claim by Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, who led a recent Royal Society study on future energy supply, that the CCC had privately admitted that it made a “mistake” when it only “looked at a single year” of data showing the number of windy days in a year when it made pronouncements on the extent to which the UK could rely on wind and solar farms to meet net zero targets.

When the CCC responded by saying Sir Chris’s presentation related solely to a particular report it published last year on how to deliver “a reliable decarbonised power system”, the Telegraph pointed out that the body’s original recommendations in 2019 about the feasibility of meeting the government’s 2050 net zero target were also based on just one year’s worth of weather data, and were heavily relied on by ministers when Theresa May enshrined the 2050 target into law.  

While planning its response to this query, an official suggested to Mr Stark that the CCC simply reply stating that “we stand by the analysis” of its 2019 recommendations, adding of Sir Chris’s comments: “We welcome Sir Chris’s work, which considers other aspects of the energy challenge in 2050, under different assumptions about the future energy mix.”

But Mr Stark replied: “How’s this – kill it with some technical language.”

He suggested an extra sentence, which was then issued as the CCC’s official response, stating: “Our recent report modelled Britain’s power system in 2035 using hourly energy demand across that year and real weather data from a low-wind year, stress-tested with a 30-day wind drought.”

David Jones, a Tory member of the Commons public administration committee and former Cabinet minister, said: “Chris Stark steps down as chief executive of the CCC next month. Before he goes, he has some serious questions to answer.

“On the face of it, urging colleagues to ‘kill’ a reasonable request for information with technical language looks very much like an attempt at obfuscation.

It’s not the first time in recent months that public officials have attempted to obfuscate and confuse rather than clarifying the facts when it comes to the evidence base behind politically contentious, bureaucratically driven climate change policies.

Late last year, Sadiq Khan’s office tried to discredit and “silence” scientists at Imperial College London who found that his ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez) policy had little impact on pollution.

The study in question, from the University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, found that the introduction of Ulez in 2019 cut nitrogen dioxide by less than 3%, and had insignificant effects on ozone and particulate matter.

Emails released under FoI requests show that Shirley Rodrigues, the London Mayor’s deputy for environment and energy, told Prof Frank Kelly, a director of Imperial’s Environmental Research Group, that she was “really disappointed” that the institution had publicised findings questioning the effectiveness of Ulez.

Prof Kelly told Ms Rodrigues he was “totally dismayed” at the “damage” his colleagues’ research may cause to the reputation of what he described as Mr Khan’s “world leading air pollution policy”. He went on to say that he was “pursuing options internally to offset this”.

Ms Rodrigues responded by thanking Prof Kelly’s team for trying to stop Imperial’s press office from releasing the research, and said that she was “deeply concerned” about the damage the study was doing to the credibility of the Mayor’s office and Ulez.

“Is there anything you can do or advise to help us set the record straight?”, she added. “I would really appreciate any support.”

Prof Kelly then agreed to issue a statement, party written by Ms Rodrigues, saying Ulez had helped to “dramatically reduce air pollution”.

Since 2021, Prof Kelly’s Environmental Research Group has been paid at least £802,958 by Mr Khan’s office since 2021, including a payment of £45,958 for a report on the “future health benefits of mayoral air quality policies”, which has been widely cited by the Mayor despite not being peer reviewed (unlike the research which so upset Prof Kelly and Ms Rodrigues, which did undergo peer-review).

Prof Kelly’s colleagues said they stood by their research “100%”, but the Telegraph understands that the fallout has had a chilling effect, leaving them unwilling to publish further work on the subject.