Having come under increasing pressure to backtrack on his initial decision to skip the crucial climate summit, Mr Sunak tweeted on Wednesday that he would attend the conference “to deliver on Glasgow’s legacy”.
The news that the UK prime minister will now attend the conference, where Britain will hand over the Cop presidency to Egypt, was welcomed by environmentalists and climate activists who had slammed his previous decision to stay at home.
But they cautioned that “just turning up” did not equate to climate leadership, and expressed concern that the prime minister’s flip-flopping on attendance will have damaged the UK’s climate leadership on the world stage.
“First impressions count,” said Ed Matthew, campaigns director at E3G, an independent think tank that aims to accelerate a global transition to a low-carbon future. “And other countries will now doubt his commitment to the climate cause, but at least he has now admitted his initial decision was wrong.”
“Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity and we hover on the brink of catastrophe,” he added. The prime minister has at last “seen sense”.
Announcing his decision to head to Sharm El Sheikh, Mr Sunak said: “There is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change. There is no energy security without investing in renewables.”
Cop26 President Alok Sharma welcomed the news, saying he was “delighted”, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Environment said Mr Sunak was “right” to attend, adding that nothing was more important than enhancing our energy security by investing in renewables and tackling the global climate crisis.
But Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow secretary for climate change and net zero, claimed Mr Sunak has been “dragged kicking and screaming” to the UN summit and that he was going “to avoid embarrassment not to provide leadership”.
Environmentalists said now that the prime minister had decided to attend the conference, he would need to make his presence count by showing leadership on some of the most pressing issues at the summit, activists said.
They include, they said, efforts to ensure developed countries meet their pledges to provide $100bn of climate finance to developing countries each year, making progress on helping the most vulnerable countries with the loss and damage they experience due to climate change.
The government must also “urgently meet” the promise it made in the Global Methane Pledge, or rapidly phasing out fossil fuels from our energy system to bring down energy bills for all and champion nature’s recovery because the climate and nature crises “are two sides of the same coin”, activists said.
“Simply showing up won’t be enough,” said Rachel Kennerley, international climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “The UK government has a lot of work to do to rebuild its climate reputation after a year of rowing back on commitments made in Glasgow.”
At home, the UK must get on track to meet its climate targets, accelerate the net zero transition by setting out a clear programme of delivery and strengthen environmental protections, activists said.
The government must scrap plans for new oil and gas in the North Sea, say no to the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years, and invest in renewables and a nationwide insulation scheme to cut energy demand, said Ms Kennerley.
For Nuala Lam, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, the question was not so much whether Mr Sunak attended Cop27 but whether the government was going to do the work needed to address the climate crisis.
“Everything we’re seeing from polling says the British people are ready to do that work,” she said. “The government is standing in the way.”