OPINION - Rishi Sunak under fire for skipping COP27 climate summit

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

A prime minister’s time is valuable and finite. That’s why the taxpayer generously funds various perks such as a flat above the shop, car and driver. But leaders still can’t be in more than one place at a time, and so where they choose to go – and be seen – is always revealing.

That is in large part because their very presence sends a deliberate signal as to what they think is important, and what they want the public to care about. It’s why Boris Johnson was rarely pictured outside of a hospital. And it also explains why Rishi Sunak’s decision not to attend the COP27 climate conference in Egypt is significant.

Downing Street pointed to “depressing domestic commitments” (I checked multiple times this wasn’t an error and it wasn’t actually “pressing”) and preparations for the Autumn Budget for the decision to stay away. On the face of it, this is fair enough. Britain has only just come through a period of self-inflicted market turmoil, and the upcoming fiscal event is likely to set the scene for the remainder of Sunak’s time in office.

But combined with the decision not to relax planning restrictions for onshore wind (one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation) and the demotion of the climate change minister from the cabinet, the public may start to get the impression that Sunak is not much interested in climate. This carries risks – environmental, economic and political.

The environmental one is fairly obvious. Our climate has already changed, roughly 1.2C above pre-industrial averages, and the impact is dramatic. One-third of Pakistan underwater, widespread drought in east Africa, forest fires in North America, ice sheets melting at the poles – you know the drill. And that is before we have triggered various tipping points that may lead to runaway climate change.

It is surprising therefore that Sunak is choosing not to attend, gladhand world leaders and work to leverage the UK’s climate finance sector, help low-income nations scale up clean technologies, strengthen alliances and generally boost global BritainTM.

The economic risk is clear too. The jobs, opportunities and industries of the future – indeed of today – lie in the rapid adoption of clean power. Britain has already missed out on early waves, with so much of our low carbon generation owned by foreign (and often state-owned) companies.

And what of fiscal rectitude, something we know Sunak cares deeply about? The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that climate inaction could see UK debt spiral to 289 per cent of GDP by the end of the century.

Finally, there is the political risk. Voters care about climate change. They may not always be looking closely at the detail, and certainly don’t enjoy being told to change their lifestyle (fly less, eat more pulses). But they still want the government to deal with it.

By not going to Egypt, and by seeming not to show more of an interest in what the UN calls the “largest, most pervasive threat to the natural environment and societies the world has ever experienced”, the prime minister leaves the issue open to Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

Perhaps Sunak is looking at the polling which shows that, when asked the top issues facing the UK in the near future, climate change is a distant third (still, third is good!) behind first-ranked ‘cost of living’ and second-placed ‘the economy’ according to a recent YouGov survey. But I’m sceptical he’ll get the credit he’s looking for by staying at home. He risks being seen not as putting Britain first, but leaving it isolated.

In the comment pages, Emily Sheffield warns that Suella Braverman’s “dream” of fixing the migrant boats issue will soon become a nightmare. As a side piece, Emily also asks of Prince Harry: why do you keep doing this to yourself? While Paul Flynn responds to foreign secretary James Cleverly’s ‘straightsplaining’ about behaviour in Qatar.

And finally, Reveller Editor David Ellis takes one for humanity to test Nigella’s peanut butter pasta recipe. Don’t forward this one to any Italians, who still haven’t gotten over last week’s Economist front cover.

Have a lovely weekend.

This article appears in our newsletter, West End Final – delivered 4pm daily – bringing you the very best of the paper, from culture and comment to features and sport. Sign up here.