What is Rishi Sunak’s record on climate change as he pulls out of COP27?

Rishi Sunak faces a tough challenge as Prime Minister (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Rishi Sunak faces a tough challenge as Prime Minister (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

When Liz Truss resigned as prime minister last week, climate campaigners breathed the smallest sigh of relief. While the next leader of the Conservative Party was not to be announced for another four days, it would be a tall order for the future prime minister to be any more controversial on climate issues than their predecessor.

Truss’s 45 days at the helm of Britain were a whirlwind for climate policy. Famously dismissing solar panels as “paraphernalia”, once in office, she immediately moved to outlaw solar power on most farmland, overturned a widely supported ban on fracking, and scrapped hundreds of laws and subsidy schemes designed to protect nature.

Truss also chose Jacob Rees-Mogg as her energy secretary, who has questioned whether climate change is caused by human activity.

However, just a few days into the job, Rishi Sunak has proved that he might not be the greener prime minister that many have been hoping for.

On Thursday, the same day that oil company Shell recorded doubling their profits, Mr Sunak announced that he would not be attending the UN COP27 climate summit in Egypt next month.

Despite the new prime minister having promised this week to prioritise the environment, his spokesperson said he had “other pressing domestic commitments”.

Ms Truss had reportedly planned to go to at least one day of the summit.

After this false start, all eyes are now on Sunak – but what is the new prime minister’s record on climate change?

A disappointing voting record

Since he was elected MP for Richmond (Yorks) in 2015, Sunak has mostly voted with the Conservative Party on environmental issues. This means he has usually voted against measures to lower emissions, according to the website They Work For You.

He voted against financial incentives for low carbon-emission electricity-generation methods in 2018, thus reducing support for former coal-power stations running wholly or in part on biomass, such as wood or other plant material.

In 2020, Sunak also voted against a call for Britain to eliminate most greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 2030.

The following year, he voted not to require the Financial Conduct Authority ‘to have regard to the target of reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2050 when setting capital and risk-related requirements for investment firms’, according to They Work For You.

Sunak’s mixed record as chancellor

As chancellor, the new prime minister’s environmental credentials were mixed.

Ed Matthew, campaigns director at E3G, an independent think tank that aims to accelerate a global transition to a low-carbon future, told the Independent that he thought Mr Sunak’s overall approach was greener than that of Ms Truss but added that wasn’t exactly hard.

“When you look at his record as chancellor, he didn’t put the clean economy and climate action right at the heart of his mission,” he said of Sunak. “You can’t solve climate change and reach the 1.5C target set by the United Nations with a half-hearted approach to climate action – you need to be all in.”

During his tenure in the treasury, Sunak pledged to turn the UK into a green-finance powerhouse and has been described as “reasonably good” at marshalling finance for net zero.

He pledged £15 billion to help London become a “hub for green finance” and announced a world-first scheme to force UK-based companies to publish net-zero transition plans.

He also supported a drive for more offshore wind and backed a government decision to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK by 2030.

However, Sunak has also been accused of failing to support green policies that incur immediate spending costs.

In October 2021, on the eve of the COP26 UN climate summit hosted in Glasgow, Sunak announced a plan to halve taxes on domestic flights — a move that would encourage air travel and boost its emissions.

He also cut the UK’s foreign aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of national income, shaving millions off the country’s funds to help poorer countries adapt to climate change — at a time when campaigners say rich countries need to dramatically scale up climate finance.

In his Spring Statement in March 2022, Mr Sunak ruled out a windfall tax on oil and gas companies – a policy the Labour party had been calling for to help with the energy crisis. He also announced a reduction in fuel duty.

The following month, the Treasury blocked plans for hundreds of millions of pounds to be spent on making homes more energy efficient, which would in turn reduce bills amid the cost-of-living crisis.

A member of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, led by MP Craig Mackinlay, “said he felt it had Sunak’s ear”.

“The trouble with net zero is it’s a lot of rich people telling poor people how to live their lives – I think the Treasury understands that,” said the unnamed parliamentarian.

What can we expect from Sunak as prime minister?

During his leadership campaign in July, Sunak told the Times that he wanted to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a drive to retrofit homes, which leak more heat than most buildings in Europe. However, Sunak oversaw the cancellation of a previous programme to do just that in 2021.

Sunak was arguably less anti-renewables than Truss during his leadership bid. However, he wrote an article for the Telegraph in August, arguing that it was “pro-farmer” to consider restricting solar development on agricultural land. Under Sunak, the Government may well press ahead with plans to effectively ban solar-planning applications on swathes of farmland.

Unlike Truss, Sunak is a signatory to the Conservative Environment Network’s pledge. He has also repeatedly stated the importance of his party delivering on the 25-Year Environment Plan and Environment Bill.

On Thursday (October 27), he announced that the Government would reinstate the ban on fracking that Liz Truss controversially lifted. The Conservative 2019 manifesto placed a moratorium on fracking in England following opposition from environmentalists and local communities.

However, Mr Sunak has also committed to driving up North Sea gas production, which will add more greenhouse gas emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere, and said he would scrap plans to relax a ban on onshore wind farms.