Rishi Sunak is not interested in the climate emergency – and everyone knows it. Forced to make a flying visit to Cop27, Mr Sunak’s intransigence made him an outcast at the UN summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He did sit down with France’s Emmanuel Macron, and the Italian far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, to discuss a subject – “illegal migration” – that Mr Sunak obviously cares about. But most world leaders were not going to make time for a prime minister who had blocked Britain’s new monarch from attending the summit and only came because he feared being upstaged by Boris Johnson. When Mr Sunak did turn up, it was with his predecessor’s plan and slogans. Embarrassingly, Mr Johnson did take centre stage at Cop27 – from the sidelines.
The prime minister’s track record reveals a politician who governs in the Tories’ narrow political interest rather than the national one. Slashing fuel and air duties as chancellor just days before the last Cop summit – hosted by the UK – showed his true colours. Pledges to curtail onshore wind and solar development during the Conservative leadership campaign signalled that personal ambition was more important than climate goals. In Cop26, countries signed up to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures. Britain had wanted to “keep 1.5C alive”. Mr Sunak seems to want it dead.
In office, he has accelerated the decline of the green agenda, ejecting from the cabinet the Cop26 president, Alok Sharma, and the climate minister, Graham Stuart. Cabinet committees are where policy arguments are thrashed out. Under Mr Johnson there were two cabinet committees dedicated to climate, one chaired by Mr Sharma and one by the prime minister. But now “net zero” has been rolled into a committee on “domestic and economic affairs”, with a focus on energy security. Mr Sunak, cynically, is using the Ukraine war to say that Britain should be self-reliant on its own fossil fuels. But Britain should reduce its dependence on carbon-based energy and help end the climate emergency.
Mr Johnson told his Red Sea audience that “now is not the time to go wibbly-wobbly on net zero”. Mr Sunak is wibbling and wobbling. His plans to extract more oil and gas from the North Sea are not compatible with the UK’s net zero commitment. Neither is building a coal mine in Cumbria. Pulling carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere can expand the space for positive emissions, but the technology is far from being rolled out.
A global political crisis of the energy transition is brewing. “The extinction of humankind” looms, but Britain is bean-counting. While Mr Sunak declares that he will spend the £11bn promised by Mr Johnson to help poorer countries adapt to global heating, he won’t say he will keep to the plan to pay out the cash over five years. If the money is spread over a longer period, it will mean cuts in climate finance. This will hurt the poorest people in the world. Mr Sunak may sell it as more money for Britons. Charity may begin at home, but what happens if your house is on fire?
The British government is playing a confidence trick that risks trapping the world in fossil fuel dependence. Mr Sunak is paying lip service to environmental issues while peddling greenwash policies and economic bloodletting. This kind of politics paves, in the words of the UN secretary general, António Guterres, the highway to climate hell.