Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, says he will fly to Egypt after all to join UN climate talks after provoking a tempest two days into his tenure when he refused to attend the global conference.
Sunak had argued that “pressing domestic commitments” would keep him away from COP27 talks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after he inherited an economic crisis from predecessor Liz Truss.
But that fuelled doubts about Sunak’s interest in the planetary emergency, and critics said the inexperienced leader was passing up an opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of US President Joe Biden and his European peers.
“There is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change,” Sunak wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “There is no energy security without investing in renewables.”
He said he would attend the summit to “deliver on Glasgow’s legacy of building a secure and sustainable future” – a reference to an agreement reached at last year’s COP26 event, which Britain hosted. The deal was meant to keep alive the world’s chances of averting the worst impacts of global warming.
Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson had made fighting climate change and working towards “net zero” emissions a signature policy.
Truss cast serious doubt on that commitment with her scepticism about net zero and blocked King Charles III from attending COP27.
The new monarch is a lifelong campaigner for environmental issues, and Sunak’s change of heart could revive debate about whether Britain should allow him to press the climate case in Egypt.
The monarch is due to hold a pre-COP27 reception at Buckingham Palace on Friday for business leaders, campaigners and politicians, including US climate change envoy John Kerry.
But the palace said there was “unanimous agreement” with Downing Street that Charles should not go to Egypt.
Criticism and embarrassment
Climate activists, opposition politicians and even some within his own party criticised Sunak after his office said last week that he was not expected to attend the conference.
“The prime minister has been shamed into going to COP27 by the torrent of disbelief that he would fail to turn up,” the opposition Labour Party’s climate policy spokesman Ed Miliband said. “He is going to avoid embarrassment not to provide leadership.”
Britain’s COP26 president, Alok Sharma, who had been critical of Sunak’s initial decision, said he was delighted the prime minister would attend the conference.
The Green Party’s only MP in the UK Parliament, Caroline Lucas, welcomed Sunak’s announcement.
“But what an embarrassing mis-step on the world stage,” she tweeted. “Let this be a lesson to him – climate leadership matters.
“Now he urgently needs to increase UK ambition on emission reduction targets & pay what we owe to global climate funds.”
Britain drew criticism this week after it emerged that it has failed to make $300 million in promised payments to international climate finance bodies.
Meanwhile, Johnson confirmed he will be attending COP27. “I was invited by the Egyptians,” he told Sky News in an interview on Tuesday. “I want to talk a little bit about how I see things and how we see things in the UK.”
‘Battered green credentials’
Separately on Tuesday, the UK said it would delay until December 8 a decision on a new coal mine in Cumbria in northern England, meaning news on whether the project will go ahead will not emerge until after the climate talks have finished.
Britain has set a goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and the government’s independent climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), have said this target would be more difficult if the mine project goes ahead.
“The run-up to next week’s climate summit was an ideal opportunity for the government to rebuild its battered green credentials by rejecting this damaging and unnecessary coal mine,” Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth said. “It’s a shame they didn’t seize it.”
The Cumbria mine is being developed by privately owned West Cumbria Mining, which has said the project to extract coking coal for the steel industry would create about 500 jobs.