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A Journey from History to the Energy Transition, with civil servant Nick Evans

Emma Latham Jones sat down with civil servant, Nick Evans, to discuss the evolution of his career from History graduate to Senior Policy Advisor at the British government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Nick has worked on various policy areas, including carbon taxes, energy markets and the phase out of coal power stations. By sharing his experiences across continents and industries, Nick shows us that everyone's career journey is unique.

Emma Latham-Jones: Thanks so much for sitting down with me today to talk through your pathway from graduation to the Civil Service. It strikes me as original. I can’t imagine many other civil servants have a similar story. This journey took you from the UK to Japan and France and then back to the UK. Let’s start at the beginning: You have a degree in history. Why the change of heart to energy policy?

Nick Evans: Thanks for having me! There’s a link between history and what I’m doing now. To start with, history teaches transferable skills such as research, analysis and communication. It trains you to engage with complexity, to consider different sides to the story and present your conclusions convincingly. These skills are all very relevant in my current job.

More broadly, history is often about understanding change. What drives particular changes in particular places? Why does change happen faster in some places than others? I have long been interested in economic and social history, particularly the ways in which societies have undergone economic transitions that completely changed the way things are produced and consumed. I think that we are experiencing another such transition today as we leave behind carbon-intensive industries and move to a more sustainable economic model. Inevitably, this process will be difficult and will cause disruption. Yet such transitions have happened throughout history, and the green transition is one that we urgently need to drive forward.

ELJ: You studied your Master in International Energy Policy at Sciences Po Paris. What appealed about energy?

NE: I’ve long been interested in economic transitions over time. What got me interested in energy specifically was my time in Japan. I went to Japan after my bachelor’s degree as part of the JET Programme – a Japanese government scheme that recruits foreign graduates to work in local education and government bodies. I was sent to the Fukushima region of Japan, where I taught English, translated documents, and worked on various ad hoc projects.

Although my role was not directly related to energy, being in Fukushima really opened my eyes to the ongoing political, economic and social impacts of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster. The region has undergone a swift transition away from nuclear power to other forms of energy, with rapid development of offshore wind and geothermal plants complementing increased reliance on coal. This energy transition has intersected with local issues – for instance, building geothermal plants can impact ground water deposits, so the construction of these installations necessitated collaboration with local hot springs, which are of huge cultural importance in Japan!

Political battles following the 2011 disaster also underlined the way that energy interacts with national and international issues. Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down after the 2011 disaster, but the Japanese government was keen to restart them. This had the potential to significantly reduce Japan’s carbon emissions. However, it prompted huge local opposition and public anger because of perceived failures in the way the government had dealt with the nuclear accident. Being an observer to this difficult, but rapid, transformation made me want to dig in deeper and learn more!

ELJ: Do you think your Master helped with your next steps?

NE: Absolutely. Studying at Sciences Po Paris helped bring all my different interests together. The university allowed me to study so many different things simultaneously: languages, international relations, energy, economics. It was a transformative couple of years that allowed me to turn a number of interests into real areas of expertise.

Sciences Po also taught me the importance of professional networks. I was fortunate to study alongside many intelligent and talented people, who introduced me to different organisations, professional fields and institutions. Additionally, I learned how to proactively build my own network and use it to achieve my goals, for instance by reaching out to professional contacts, discussing work opportunities with them, and following up with them where necessary. When I started at Sciences Po, I felt like an interested observer; by the end I felt much more like an expert and professional with lots to contribute.

ELJ: Was it hard going from being a full-time employee in Japan and then Master student, to interning at OECD?

NE: The really hard transition was going from Japan, where I had a job, to Paris where I was a full-time student. Having a job provided structure and stability: I had tasks assigned to me and knew what was expected. In contrast, being a postgraduate student, especially somewhere like Sciences Po, often means forging your own path and setting your own priorities.

At Sciences Po, I found I was constantly busy juggling different projects and didn’t have much divide between work and play: there was always something more I could be doing, and I often found myself working on essays and job applications in the evenings and weekends, which made it hard to switch off. Moreover, it was a shock going from having a steady income to returning to student life and having to budget carefully!

I found it easier going from Sciences Po to the OECD: I had the structure of having a job with a well-defined workday, and felt able to switch off once I went home each evening.

ELJ: You were also working for CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) in London. What did you work on while you were at CDP and OECD?

NE: CDP is a non-profit that works with governments, businesses and institutions all around the world to map out climate risks While I was there, I worked in a team called CSTAR (Cities, States and Regions). I worked on the annual disclosure process to collect data from their partners. This involved liaising with stakeholders by phone and email to help them through this process. My language skills came in handy: I was often asked to engage with regional governments in France, Switzerland or the French Caribbean to answer their queries and to make sure they fully understood what information they needed to disclose. It was a great experience in stakeholder engagement.

ELJ: And at the OECD?

NE: I worked in the Environment Directorate on a project called Inclusive Solutions for the Green Transition, which focused on the distributional impacts of sustainable development. This was an area of work that really resonated with me given my interest in socioeconomic transitions. The issue is that the green transition is an economic transformation, which inevitably will make some better off and others worse off. As we shift to a more sustainable economic model, certain industries will need to fundamentally change how they do things, and others will need to be phased out entirely. There are some countries and regions that are well-placed to benefit from these kinds of changes, and others that risk losing out. The stakes are high: when big economic changes are not managed well, it can have lasting negative socio-economic consequences – for instance, look at what happened in regions like the North of England and the American rustbelt following deindustrialisation. But when such changes are well managed, they can open up countless new opportunities for economic development.

I analysed this. The OECD has done lots of excellent research on these issues and how they can be manged by decision-makers. I contributed to the project in various ways: I helped organise a major conference on sustainable development, including by helping to curate the content – that is, working out what themes and issues needed to be covered to make the event helpful for stakeholders. I later drafted a 6,000-word report to summarise the key outcomes of the project.

ELJ: What’s the link between the work you were doing at OECD and your next step: working at PwC?

NE: At the OECD my role focused on distributional impacts on the green transition both on the public and businesses. Some businesses are well placed to adapt, while others risk losing out and need to work out how to weather the change. At PwC, I worked in sustainability consulting. This means working with companies to help them understand and manage environmental risks. I worked on ESG reviews for clients, which involved looking at a business in its entirety and looking at how well the organisation is measuring and managing its environmental impacts. I also carried out sustainability audits, which involved going to client sites and looking at how they reported and calculated their environmental indicators at a site level.

ELJ: Why did you decide to join the Civil Service?

NE: My role at PwC wasn’t right for me. The team I worked in deals with ESG issues in a broad sense. This includes environmental issues, which really interested me, but also social and governance topics such as work accidents, employees’ health, gender equality, and corporate governance. These are all very important, but they are not my areas of expertise. I knew that the energy sector was what really interested me – specifically, how we can drive the transition to a more sustainable energy system.

I now work in the Civil Service as a Senior Policy Advisor at BEIS. My role is all about supporting the energy transition: for example, I’ve worked extensively on the phase out of coal-fired power stations and the role of carbon taxes in the electricity sector. I’m happy in this role and feel it aligns well with my interests.

ELJ: Are there any similarities between what you are doing now and what you were doing at PwC?

NE: In some ways, PwC and the Civil Service are relatively similar work environments: both are big, hierarchical organisations with many layers of complexity and lots of internal procedures. I think working somewhere like PwC is much closer to the Civil Service than working for a startup, even though both PwC and a startup are private sector organisations.

However, in other ways the Civil Service is very different. Working in government entails dealing with numerous stakeholders including ministers, other government departments, businesses, industry bodies, and regulated monopolies such as National Grid. You have to understand each stakeholder’s interests and take them into account. In contrast, my role at PwC was much more focused on keeping clients happy and getting results for them. The objectives were generally narrower and more defined, which made for quite a different work environment.

Thank you so much for your time, Nick!

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