Rishi Sunak has dealt a blow to the developing countries hardest-hit by climate change by shunning appeals for the UK to contribute towards reparations for the natural disasters caused by hundreds of years of industrial pollution.
Thirty-year-old demands for a fund to pay for the permanent loss and damage caused by extreme weather were discussed for the first time on the floor of the Cop27 climate change conference in Egypt, with calls for the UK and other rich nations to join Belgium, Denmark and Scotland in committing cash.
But the prime minister made no reference to the topic in his five-minute speech in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, instead recommitting to a 2020 pledge of £11.6bn for climate funding over five years and tripling to £1.5bn the UK’s contribution towards measures to boost resilience against future disasters.
Handing over the presidency of the United Nations climate change process following last year’s UK-hosted summit in Glasgow, Mr Sunak insisted there was “room for hope” if the struggle against climate change becomes “a global mission for new jobs and clean growth” though renewable energy.
But his optimistic tone clashed with a warning from UN secretary general Antonio Guterres that the world was “on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”.
“We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing,” Mr Gutteres told delegates.
“Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.”
Former US vice-president Al Gore called for an end to the “culture of death” represented by fossil fuel extraction.
“We continue to use the thin blue atmosphere as an open sewer,” he said. “It is getting steadily worse. We are not doing enough.”
In Glasgow, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon took the hugely symbolic step of committing £2m to an international “loss and damage” fund. Scotland’s initiative has since been followed by Denmark and Belgium, which announced €2.5m (£2.2m) in finance for Mozambique on Monday.
On Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon announced another £5m and urged other countries to follow suit.
“I think what’s important here at Cop27 is that we find the common ground and make the progress towards serious financing,” Ms Sturgeon told The Independent. “Countries in the global north that have caused climate change and have the greatest access to resources have an obligation to step up.”
Activists at Cop27 called on Britain to follow suit. “The UK has largely dragged its feet on loss and damage,” said Mohamed Adow, the director of think tank Power Shift Africa. “We need them to step up.”
Alejandra Padin-Dujon, of Catholic development charity Cafod, said London should be pledging billions, not millions, to making good the damage caused by floods, wildfires and cyclones caused by global warming.
“The UK has consistently not shown leadership in this area,” said Ms Padin-Dujon. “Loss and damage has been thrown by the wayside.”
A succession of developing country and small island state leaders described how extreme weather had wreaked devastation costing hundreds of billions of pounds.
By 2030, losses and damages are estimated to cost developing countries somewhere between $290bn (£250bn) and $580bn a year. By mid-century, that is predicted to go up to between $1,132bn and $1,741bn.
Nabeel Munir, envoy for Pakistan, where recent floods left almost a third of the country underwater, said for Cop27 to be considered a success, it must deliver “something clear and tangible” on a loss and damage funding mechanism, with final agreement no later than Cop29 in 2024.
And Barbados PM Mia Mottley said the energy giants producing climate change should be paying 10 per cent of their profits into a loss and damage fund, alongside developed countries like the UK.
“How do oil and gas companies make $200bn in the last three months and not expect to contribute?” she asked.
“Our people on this Earth deserve better and our leaders know better. I ask the people of the world to hold us accountable. The choice is ours – what will we choose to save?”
Ahead of this week’s summit, Mr Guterres described a loss and damage fund as a “moral imperative that cannot be ignored” at Cop27.
Cabinet minister Grant Shapps signalled on Monday that the UK was “supportive of discussions” about reparations, saying: “We industrialised first and we appreciate the rest of the world needs to be able to bring themselves along as well.”
And French president Emmanuel Macron said it was time for the global north to “come to terms with the idea of financial solidarity”.
But Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson insisted: “We are not talking about reparations or liability. We are talking about continuing to provide support for countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change."
And former prime minister Boris Johnson suggested that reparations were unaffordable for developed countries.
“Two hundred years ago, we started it all and there’s no question that per capita, people in the UK have put out an awful lot of carbon into the atmosphere,” he told a meeting on the margin of the summit.
“But what we cannot do is make up for that with some kind of reparations. We simply do not have the financial resources — and no country could.”
Mr Sunak risks likely rebellion from his own MPs if he accepts the principle of restitution for past damage.
Former minister David Jones, a member of the climate-sceptic Net Zero Scrutiny Group, told The Independent: “I don’t think we should be signing the first cheque in what could become a book full of blank cheques.
"I think we have to be very, very careful about doing something that is tokenistic. Our overseas aid budget has been pared back recently, but it has been one of the most generous in the world. I think that is what the government should be focusing on."
Oxfam’s GB chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah said Mr Sunak’s silence on loss and damage was “deafening”.
“Rich nations like the UK, which have done most to contribute to climate change, have a moral obligation to provide funding to help low-income countries deal with the devastating impacts of an escalating climate crisis they did little to cause,” he said.
Mariana Paoli, global advocacy lead at Christian Aid, said that the UK was “blocking progress behind the scenes” on loss and damage.
“Rishi Sunak cannot claim to be a green leader whilst ignoring the plight of the most vulnerable,” she said.
Loss and damage: Fight over human harm, huge climate costs
Mary Friel, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said that the human experience of the impact of climate change “requires recognition and requires finance”. She called on the UK to pledge funds and to push for loss and damage to become a permanent item on subsequent climate summits’ agendas.
James Cameron, a UK government-appointed adviser to Cop26 in Glasgow, denied the UK had been a “laggard” on the issue, with Cop26 president Alok Sharma acting as “very good diplomatic envoy” to push it onto the agenda.
But Labour’s climate change spokesperson Ed Miliband dismissed Mr Sunak’s speech as “vacuous and empty”.
"As Rishi Sunak preaches about clean energy abroad, he is the man who blocks onshore wind [power] at home while giving massive tax breaks to fossil fuel companies who are making billions in windfall profits at the expense of the British people,” said Mr Miliband.