Rishi Sunak has been warned his decision to not attend the crucial Cop27 climate summit in Egypt in little over a week undermines the UK’s climate leadership as the world slips behind targets to limit global warming.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for climate change, said the decision was an “embarrassing reflection” of the government’s failure to deliver on its Cop26 commitments, saying the UK was “way off track” to meet its climate targets and has a net zero plan that the courts have ruled unlawful and inadequate.
“This is a massive failure of climate leadership,” he said.
The decision to skip the summit in Sharm El Sheikh, where the UK will hand over the Cop presidency to Egypt, comes on the same day that the United Nations warned that there is “no credible” pathway in place to rein in global temperature rise to 1.5C and that only “root and branch” transformation can save the planet from disaster. The UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said the world was headed for “catastrophe”.
It also follows the announcement that Cop26 president Alok Sharma and climate minister Graham Stuart would no longer attend cabinet, effectively demoting climate change in the important decision-making body.
“The new PM’s decision not to attend Cop27 makes a mockery of any government claims on continued climate leadership,” said Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion. “What a shameful way to end the UK’s Cop presidency.”
The UK has held the Cop presidency for the past year shepherding through the Glasgow Climate Pact which made history as the first time fossil fuels, a major driver of the climate crisis, were included in a UN climate document of this kind. Egypt will now take over the reins, with hopes the summit this November will focus on how to implement some of the pledges made in Glasgow a year ago.
At last year’s summit the UK was praised for its role in convincing other countries to increase their pledges, but a year later only a couple of dozen have stuck to them.
The news that the UK leader would not be in Egypt for the summit comes after Buckingham Palace confirmed earlier this month that King Charles III will also not attend after reports swirled that Liz Truss had advised him against going. Ms Truss was expected to attend for at least one day before she resigned from office last week.
By way of explanation for the new prime minister’s absence, his spokesperson said Mr Sunak had “other pressing domestic commitments” pointing to the de facto Budget slated for 17 November, when the government is expected to announce spending cuts and tax hikes in a bid to ease the economic crisis engulfing Britain.
But campaigners said there was no global summit that could be more important for the prime minister to attend this year.
“Climate change represents an existential threat to humanity and the window is closing fast to prevent the most catastrophic impacts,” said Ed Matthew, campaigns director at E3G, an independent think tank that aims to accelerate a global transition to a low-carbon future. “Missing it is a major misjudgement that will undermine the UK’s climate leadership.”
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace, said for Mr Sunak not to show up in Egypt was like a runner failing to turn up with the baton at a crucial stage of the relay.
“Coming just after the ousting of Alok Sharma from the cabinet, this suggests that the new prime minister neither takes the climate crisis seriously enough, nor recognises the opportunities for Britain to take a leadership role in helping to solve it,” she said.
The mood among environmentalists and climate activists was starkly different 24 hours earlier when Mr Sunak confirmed the ban on shale gas fracking would be reinstated. Campaigners had greeted the move with cautious optimism saying it marked a good start and was welcome news on the prime minister’s first full day in office.
The UN’s report published on Thursday, The Closing Window, warned that only “root and branch” transformation can save the planet from disaster.
“Under current policies, the world is headed for 2.8 degrees of global heating by the end of the century,” said Mr Guterres, outlining the findings of the annual Emissions Gap report. “In other words, we are headed for a global catastrophe.”
The yearly update offers an independent take on countries’ combined efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite a decision at Cop26 last November in Glasgow to make more drastic emissions cuts, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), very little has been done. NDCs submitted in the past year take less than 1 per cent off projected global emissions in 2030.
“Progress since Cop26 in Glasgow has been woefully inadequate,” the report adds.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the government was committed to supporting Cop27 and leading international action to tackle climate change and protect nature.
“The UK will be fully represented by other senior ministers, as well as Cop president Alok Sharma,” the spokesperson said. “They will be working to ensure that countries continue to make progress on the groundbreaking commitments made at Cop26 in Glasgow.”