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Tête-à-tête with Greg: Dr. Karen Barrass, Founder and Director at Climate Insights

“Tête-à-tête with Greg” is a series of conversations between the people who make a difference in the energy industry and our CEO, Grzegorz Marecki. In these interviews, we delve into the challenges, opportunities and successes of the industry. Each interviewee provides a unique perspective that helps to enrich the broader discussion. This exchange takes readers on an exciting journey into the heart of the energy sector and its key players. 

Who is Karen? 

Karen has been working on climate issues for 20 years. Her extensive experience lies in research and advocacy - developing tools and leading campaigns to affect positive change. Until 2023, Karen led research and policy at UK100. Working across a raft of sectors that need decarbonising, she has pioneered the understanding of policy approaches that can deliver multiple co-benefits. 
In 2023, she established Climate Insights - through which she offers bespoke research and policy analysis to organisations working to deliver transformational change.


G: Karen, what inspired the move from working at UK100 to establishing your own consultancy - Climate Insights - and what are your goals with your new venture?

K: In terms of what inspired the move and my goals, my work spans disciplines. I've worked at the junction between policy, research, and practice, collaborating with decision-makers, businesses, local authorities, and civil servants in the UK and internationally.

I loved the work at UK 100 and the team, but I missed the international reach and the opportunity to focus on different elements of decarbonisation. I wanted to push myself, and see if I could stand on my own two feet. I also wanted to do more connecting and convening.

This will be a theme in our conversation, bringing people and ideas together that might not seem obvious and understanding how all parts of the system that need to be decarbonised can do so cohesively. That's my goal - enable conversations, bring people together who might not think they have synergies, and work on issues systematically, helping people with their respective work.

G: How has your role as a climate governance specialist evolved in response to the changing landscape of climate policy, technology and public awareness over the years?

K: The constant is that people often work in silos, focusing on their specific issues. Busy individuals don't always take the time to look up, see what's around, and understand connections. Effort goes into developing policies, programmes and projects, but little attention is given to the system and how collaboration is enabled.

That's been the core of much of my work. How do government departments collaborate? How do different levels of government, business and academia work together? I've put efforts into trying to better understand and improve some of these things in practice. There are positive indications that people are starting to think more broadly and make connections themselves.

Tools developed in recent years, like the Cornwall Council decision-making wheel, involve everyone in the organisation in big investment decisions. They run through a series of questions to assess if it's the right decision, considering trade-offs and synergies before making a decision. Things are evolving and changing, with an acknowledgement that we need to do things differently. However, things still aren't as connected as they need to be.

G: In your work, you've likely encountered various stakeholder groups with differing interests and priorities. How can diverse stakeholders be engaged and coordinated to ensure a cohesive approach to building sustainable energy infrastructure and achieving net-zero emissions?

K: If I had the answer to how we should do it, we would potentially be a long way ahead because that's the key challenge. Despite not knowing exactly how to do it, it's the only way to achieve Net Zero—throwing everything we have at the issue.

Context is always a significant factor. What works in one location might not work in another, and the same goes for different sectors. Bringing stakeholders together and having conversations helps realise what will work in any given context. For me, citizens' assemblies and juries, seen not just nationally, but in various towns, cities, and regions where ambitious leaders aim to deliver commitments, have shown that hearing from wider viewpoints enables smarter solutions. There is a role for expertise, but also what this means for me in my life, what changes I expect, and how it'll impact me.

Without understanding all those considerations, anything we try to implement won't be as successful. I recently did work for Innovate UK looking at Engaging Communities in the Prospering from the Energy Revolution project, taking a look at all the projects and asking, how did we engage with stakeholders? Was the engagement process designed from the outset? What impact did it have on successful outcomes?

Across the board, there is evidence suggesting you have to listen to people and you will deliver better results if you do. More listening and consideration are required, and then we can set the wheels in motion. But we don't have much time; it's urgent, so we need to get on and do it.

G: Can you elaborate on the concept of "policy approaches that deliver multiple co-benefits"? How can such approaches be implemented, and what are some examples of these co-benefits?

K: Something I'm passionate about is addressing air pollution, which has a constant and immediate impact on people's health, especially children and older individuals. Coming from a transport background and focusing on cars, I've observed the drive for more efficient vehicles from a climate perspective leading to an increase in diesel engine sales, contributing to an air quality crisis. This is an example where a holistic conversation about how we get around this and what we want the future to look like more generally is beneficial.

Considering trade-offs: electrification is good for vehicles, but there will still be brake dust and wheel dust. Increasing journeys made by active travel or public transport helps connect air quality, climate change and healthier living, both in terms of exercise and breathing cleaner air.

For me, that's a microcosm of delivering co-benefits. What are the health and budget savings from social prescribing of active travel? What are the respiratory benefits of breathing clean air? And how do we turn that into actionable policy? A piece of work I did, called Clean Air Net Zero, was about understanding emissions reduction and the air quality issue. It's about finding co-benefits in terms of climate justice, improving quality of life, and access to vital infrastructure services.

It's about thinking of the future in UN terminology and how we get there, considering social, environmental, and economic perspectives simultaneously. That's essentially what it means.

G: In your role, you've likely had to bridge the gap between scientific research, policy development and practical implementation. What are the challenges and rewards of doing so?

K: I feel lucky because that gives me different insights into various perspectives. As an academic researcher, I know my research must be developed in a certain way for a specific audience, and the essence needs to be made digestible for non-expert audiences. Understanding this helps enable others to think about how they interact with each other. Sometimes, it's difficult to wear different hats and write one way for one person and another way for someone else.

The challenge is being pulled in different directions, wanting to work on everything and not being focused enough. I want to do all the things all the time, and that's not possible. Being strategic and looking at the areas where I can affect the most positive change is probably how, and I don't always get it right. Sometimes I work on things and think, okay, that's going to have a limited impact. Other times, with the benefit of hindsight, you can see that, oh, actually, that did make a difference. It helped shift momentum and change perspectives.

As I alluded to earlier, listening is the most important thing—hearing from different people, and understanding where things come from. That's probably the most powerful thing to help make connections. The main purpose is to hear a lot of things and help understand and navigate them. That's the most rewarding thing, probably.

Another reward is speaking to people about issues or sectors they haven't had exposure to. When they start to get it and make connections for themselves, it's rewarding because they'll then take that information into their day-to-day and spread it as well. I think that combination of listening to people and trying to bring new insights to new audiences.

G: The transition to net zero will involve extensive technological innovation. What strategies can be adopted to promote innovation in the energy sector?

K: I think it's more of a societal and organisational innovation that we need to see because we've had technology capable of delivering significant emission reduction for a very long time. The real barriers are the lack of implementation and scaling, being cohesive about it. The strategies that need to be promoted are those of political will to deliver the required shift and scale and a lack of shoehorning solutions that might not be right for a given context.

I don't have the answers to untangle business interests from political interests. It's a fairly academic challenge. Where we see political leadership, innovation, and ambition, you can see what transformation really looks like and how possible it is. I don't know how that translates into a strategy for adopting innovation, but that's what we need to see. We need more will and political leadership to invest in solutions on a scale capable of delivering what we need.

G: And finally, what should we be hopeful for? 

K: Examples like Wales. We should be hopeful and thankful for Wales and what they're doing to push things forward. Again, that comes from the basis of a country capable of getting a Future Generation Bill through its Parliament, the Welsh Assembly. The willingness is already there, and it's really a testament to what can be achieved to set the expectations for the things that can follow. So yes, Wales and its local area energy planning give me hope.

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