Rishi Sunak insisted he must focus on the “depressing domestic challenges” rather than attend the COP27 climate summit in Egypt after he was accused of a “failure of leadership”.
The Prime Minister insisted he is “personally committed” to tackling the climate crisis after he pulled out of the United Nations conference next month that Liz Truss was due to attend.
Conservative former culture secretary Nadine Dorries said Mr Sunak is “wrong” not to attend the Sharm El-Sheikh summit, saying global heating is the “biggest crisis facing our planet”.
She joined activists and opposition parties in criticising the move, with shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband accusing Mr Sunak of a “massive failure of leadership”.
But Mr Sunak insisted it is “right” for him to instead focus on the UK economy in talks with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt ahead of their autumn budget on November 17.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Croydon University Hospital, the Prime Minister said: “The leadership that we have shown on the climate is unmatched almost along the world.
“It’s important to me that, as Prime Minister, we leave behind an environment that is better for our children and grandchildren. I’m very passionate about that. I’m very personally committed to it.
“I just think, at the moment, it’s right that I’m also focusing on the depressing domestic challenges we have with the economy.
“I think that’s what people watching would reasonably expect me to be doing as well.”
The PM’s decision not to attend the summit was earlier defended by Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey.
Ms Coffey insisted the “big political moments” tend to happen at the conference every five years and Mr Sunak had more urgent matters at home.
The international meeting is due to take place in Egypt between November 6 and 18.
It comes after Mr Sunak demoted two ministers with responsibility for tackling climate change. COP president Alok Sharma and climate minister Graham Stuart kept the jobs they had held under previous prime minister Liz Truss but were removed from the Cabinet.
Ms Coffey said she and “several senior government ministers” will be attending but could not confirm if the King, a passionate environmentalist, would also attend now that there has been a change of leadership.
Ms Truss had reportedly told the King he should stay away from COP27.
“I think it’s up to him,” Ms Coffey said. “I know that he takes an interest in this particular issue, but it’s up to him.”
Downing Street said later on Friday it was “unanimously agreed” by Buckingham Palace and the Government that the King would not attend COP27 under the previous administration.
A spokeswoman added she is “not aware” that the advice has changed.
The annual UN climate meetings are designed to help governments agree steps to limit world temperature rises.
The UK hosted last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, with then-PM Boris Johnson stressing the need to act by warning it was a “one minute to midnight moment”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised Mr Sunak’s move to skip the summit.
“Britain showing up to work with world leaders is an opportunity to grasp. Not an event to shun,” he said.
Shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband said it showed a “massive failure of leadership”.
Green MP Caroline Lucas added: “The first test of leadership is to turn up. The new PM’s decision not to attend COP27 makes a mockery of any government claims on continued climate leadership — and what a shameful way to end the UK’s COP presidency.”
Rebecca Newsom, the head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said the move suggests Mr Sunak does not take climate change “seriously enough”.
“The UK Government is supposed to hand over the COP presidency to their Egyptian counterparts at next month’s summit,” she said. “For Rishi Sunak not to show up is like a runner failing to turn up with the baton at a crucial stage of the relay.” As well as the upcoming Budget, Mr Sunak is faced with having to unite a fractured Tory party and fixing a floundering economy.