Insight: Rishi Sunak heads to COP28, but does the summit matter, and has he damaged Britain's voice?
When the United Nations Climate Change Conference arrived in Glasgow in 2021, it felt like an incredibly big deal, with Britain represented by a Conservative Prime Minister who, aside from everything else, was a sincere and staunch environmentalist.Boris Johnson has now left politics however, for the comfort of a newspaper column, and in his place is Rishi Sunak, a leader who has talked of making tough calls, all with the slogan of “long-term decisions for a brighter future”.
Despite lauding his own environmental credentials, Mr Sunak has watered down some of Britain’s commitments. While still promising to reach net zero by 2050, plans to phase out gas boilers and petrol and diesel vehicles have been delayed, prompting a furious backlash from both automobile and energy industries. The Prime Minister also vowed to “max out” the UK’s oil and gas reserves by granting new North Sea drilling licences.
In a damning verdict, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) warned of a “substantial policy gap” which is putting the UK off track to meet its crucial 2030 carbon targets.
Speaking before the summit, Mr Sunak insisted Britain remained a world leader on green policy, and accused Labour of “just trying to catch up”.
He said: “We’ve got a better track record than any other major economy in decarbonising.
“Any which way I look at it, we are a leader on this issue. We have been, we’re continuing to do so. So I will walk around very proudly tomorrow championing the UK’s achievements in this space.”
Now heading to COP28 in Dubai, the questions for some are whether the global summit still matters, what role Britain has to play, and if the governing parties of the world are jetting off to score points or deliver meaningful change.
World leaders arrive with the war in Ukraine having fundamentally moved the dial on attitudes to energy, with some countries looking for new fossil fuels, no longer able to access Russian oil.
There is lots to discuss, despite the progress made. Under the landmark Paris agreement, countries committed to holding global temperature rises to “well below” 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, while “pursuing efforts” to limit heating to 1.5ºC. Those targets are legally binding and enshrined in the treaty.
However, to stay within 1.5ºC, the world also needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions, compared with 2010 levels, in this decade. The emissions pledges at COP26 were not adequate to meet that goal, and while countries agreed to work towards it in Glasgow, things aren’t moving fast enough.
Labour see COP as “hugely important”, with even MPs on the left of the party believing the environment is one of the areas where Sir Keir has taken a bold approach.
Party sources see the summit in Dubai as a ramp to COP30 in Brazil, with this event about building momentum to a larger agreement in the Amazonian city of Belém do Pará.
While insisting the event still matters, they also fear Mr Sunak’s actions have damaged Britain’s reputation, explaining they’ve been noticed by other countries, which could undermine efforts to make progress.
A source said: “Rishi Sunak’s u-turns have been noticed, and they’re damaging. The whole Cop process relies on rich countries showing the power of example.
“Keir is showing real leadership on this, and made it central to his agenda, but developing countries see what the Government has done, and think, why should we bother?”.
A Labour MP added: “I think the criticism of Keir has been he’s not been bold enough, or we need to give people more reasons to vote Labour. Our energy policy delivers that, and can show other world leaders that Britain, under a Labour Government, will deliver a greener future”.
Labour figures also believe the two-week summit has more weight for them this year with all polls reporting Sir Keir Starmer to become Prime Minister next year. As a result, the party is having higher level meetings, and there is a stronger feeling of responsibility.
It is of note this view that Britain has damaged its voice is not just held by opposition parties, but also by many Tories. Lord Goldsmith, who resigned as his environment minister, previously accused Mr Sunak of being “uninterested” in green issues.He said: “There’s no doubt our standing has diminished considerably in recent months.
“The UK is just not seen by our allies – big and also small island members of the commonwealth – as a reliable or serious partner.”
However, Government sources are still defiant on their environmental credentials, and dismiss both the criticism and characterisation of Mr Sunak’s change to environment policies.
One source said: “Of course it still matters, that’s why investing so much time and sending so many people, and are proud King Charles is opening it. We are going out with a good story to tell on our record.
“That’s why we have amazing plans for nuclear energy, and are decarbonising faster than any other G7 nation. Other nations are looking to us to see how they grow the economy, and go green
“The things Labour would call U-turns had no impact on other countries, and we are still focused on supporting developing nations”.
One minister told The Scotsman the Prime Minister took climate change “deeply seriously”, pointing out it was Mr Sunak who set up a department for energy security and net zero.
They said: “Everything that the department does is focused on cutting emissions and reaching net zero by 2050. We will hit that target because of investment, the alternative energies we are supporting, such as new nuclear, onshore wind offshore wind, fusion.
“We are doing more than any competitors, it is not helping Labour talking our record down.
“It’s not something I see as political. I speak to Labour figures and there is barely a fag paper between us on energy.
“The overall aims of developing green technologies, our developing nuclear programme, we are on the same page.
“On the climate and what we’re seeking to do on Cop, we’re all fighting for Britain on these things”.
The minister also insisted Cop could still be a “vehicle for change”, and one that went beyond political point scoring. They gave the example of the Paris accord, signed in 2015, and suggested that fundamentally changed how the world approached climate change.
They explained: “That was the COP that shifted the dial, and Glasgow built on that. It gave us a lot of international and diplomatic credibility, it means a lot for our voice. It helps that we have a head of state that is very passionate.
“Look at what we agreed in Glasgow, look at the money being committed to supporting neighbouring countries. That would not have happened without COP, or these sorts of international summits.
“It got countries like India and China to sit around the table discussing the biggest issue facing us, which is the climate.
“I know they look a bit like a circus, with everything that goes with it, the carbon footprint of all these countries jetting into a petrol rich city in the desert, but it is important. It’s diplomacy at its highest.
“There are really tangible results. United support for Ukraine, and shared stances on Iran and Russia. This stuff matters”.
In the Liberal Democrats, they also see Cop as a vital tool to combat climate change, but question whether Mr Sunak’s attendance is about that or point scoring.
The Orkney and Shetland MP Alister Carmichael mocked the Prime Minister’s travel arrangements, and accused ministers of not doing enough to back industries that could help achieve net zero.He said: “John Prescott was labelled “Two Jags” – perhaps now we should call Rishi Sunak “Two Jets” after he and his Foreign Secretary decided they needed individual flights to go to COP.
“Past iterations of COP have brought real progress in the fight against climate change, including our hosting of COP26. Those efforts only bear fruit, however, when we show genuine willingness to stand by our commitments.
“The Tories have shown that they will chuck any climate promise on the pyre and set it alight the moment there is a hint of political advantage. It is self-interest and short-termism of the worst kind and risks opening us up to charges of hypocrisy when we turn up at COP talking down to others.
“We are lucky to have enormous opportunities in this country, both in terms of leading the way on decarbonisation and in driving green jobs. Green technologies like marine renewables are the industries of the future – ministers need to get on board and back them fully. That is the message we need to put out to the world.”
Running for two weeks, it will be the policy that is announced that is more important for the future, not the rhetoric of world leaders.
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