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Rishi Sunak's Climate Crisis Report Card: Must Do Better

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak has not got the best reputation when it comes to pushing for a greener agenda.

Now the UN’s major climate summit, COP28, is just around the corner, and the pressure is on for world leaders to implement real change as the crisis ramps up.

Earlier this week, Sunak did unveil a few green ideas, such as starting a search for a national park, a new strategy on rainforests and landscape recovery project with farmers.

But, that’s just what he’s said days before the international conference.

As he prepares to fly on a private jet to reach the summit in the UAE – the PM is notably using a different jet from the ones King Charles and foreign secretary David Cameron are flying in on – here’s a look at just how well the government’s been doing on the climate crisis since he came to office.

No climate envoy

The UK will not have a specialist climate diplomat at this year’s COP, after Sunak dropped the special representative for climate change position earlier this year.

Without such a specialist diplomat in the room at COP, the UK’s role will be significantly weakened at this year’s talks.

That makes the UK an outlier among other countries – including large carbon emitters like the US, China, UAE and Russia – who have climate envoys for the annual summit.

The last person to hold this position, Nick Bridge, resigned in April, and the position remains empty.

The independent government advisers at the Climate Change Committee also urged the government to appoint a “secretary of state-level climate envoy” in June ahead of COP28.

Oil fields

Sunak announced his plan to “max out” the UK’s oil and gas reserves in July after giving the go-ahead to a new round of North Sea drilling.

He authorised more than 100 new North Sea licences and agreed to drill at the UK’s largest untapped reserves in the Rosebank field. It’s said to hold up to 500 million barrels of oil.

He claimed it was fundamental because the UK would be using fossil fuels for decades to come, this offered more energy security than relying on other countries, and this was less damaging than shipping fuel over from abroad.

However, the UK usually uses imported gas from pipelines because it is cleaner than fossil fuels found in the North Sea. Analysis from Uplift found UK gas production is actually twice as polluting as the fuel imported from Norwegian pipelines.

Coal mine

Less than two months after he got into office, Sunak’s government approved the first new coal mine in 30 years, in Cumbria.

It came shortly after the UK urged others to “consign coal to history” in the COP26 summit in 2021. It was also the first new coal mine opened in the UK in 30 years.

The mine’s application said that nearly 2.8 million tonnes of coal will be extracted per year.

Green policies

Sunak rowed back on green pledges in September, delaying the proposed ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars – which was set to begin in 2030 – and delaying the phasing out of gas boilers.

He insisted the government is still dedicated to meting the net zero target by 2050, by said this would enable to Uk to meet its commitments in a “better, more proportionate way”.

Tory MP and the government’s former net zero tsar Chris Skidmore, said: “The decision will cost the UK jobs, inward investment, and future economic growth that could have been ours by committing to the industries of the future.”

COP27

Sunak initially said he would not be going to COP27 last year, held in Egypt, because he had too many domestic issues (like spiralling energy costs) to contend with.

He U-turned only once his predecessor Boris Johnson announced his intention to go to the pivotal summit.

He did not lift his ban on King Charles attending the same conference, though.

Alok Sharma

The COP26 president – appointed under Johnson – was known for passionately advocating for phasing out coal.

He was removed from cabinet once Sunak became PM, although he retained the role of president for COP27 until November 2022.

In September 2023 Sharma announced he would not be standing at the next general election, shortly after voicing his concerns that the PM was rolling back green pledges.

Speaking to the BBC at the UN’s Climate Action Summit – which Sunak chose not to attend – he said there was “consternation” over the PM’s absence.

He said: “My concern is whether people now look to us and say, ‘Well, if the UK is starting to row back on some of these policies, maybe we should do the same’.”

It’s worth noting environment minister Lord Zac Goldsmith also quit earlier this year, pointing to the PM’s “apathy” towards climate change.

Private jets

Sunak hasn’t just chosen to fly to COP28 in a private jet as a one-off treat.

He’s been spotted chartering private planes, known for being particularly terrible for the environment, repeatedly.

In the last year, he travelled to Dover by helicopter (a one-hour train journey), travelled to Southampton by helicopter (a 1hr 14 minute trip by train), and via RAF jet to Scotland when scheduled commercial flights were available.

BBC analysis published in August suggested Sunak takes more VIP flights around the UK than any other prime minister has done – equating to one domestic private plane or helicopter flight every eight days since he got into office.

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