Rishi Sunak is to announce a new package of green measures as the Cop28 UN climate summit begins in Dubai, including a search for a national park, a strategy on British rainforests and landscape recovery projects with farmers.
But green groups have told the Guardian the package is greenwashing and an attempt by the UK prime minister to “reset” his reputation after previously opposing environmental measures.
Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “There is very little indication that voters responded well to his anti-green spasm a few months ago.”
The measures to be announced on Wednesday will include a countrywide search for the location for a national park in England. The government said it would be in one of England’s “most beautiful” nature spots, and chosen with accessibility for everyone in mind.
It is unlikely, however, that the government can begin to fulfil that pledge before the next general election.
Sunak will also propose a £15m boost in funding for existing parks and nationally important nature spaces, and a rainforest strategy with £750,000 for research. There will also be £2.5m to improve access to nature for children, though there was no detail on how this would be achieved.
There is scepticism among environmental groups about the motivations for the announcement. Some news outlets reported that Sunak’s popularity had dived after he revealed a rollback of net zero measures in September, a strategy he thought would boost the party after the Uxbridge byelection, in which a supposed backlash against the Ulez emissions scheme was credited with playing a critical role.
Sunak is due to attend Cop28 this week with the foreign secretary, David Cameron, and King Charles III. The prime minister made a firm commitment to attend the summit early this year after a last-minute U-turn on Cop27 in Egypt last year. No 10 had previously said he was too focused on the domestic economy to attend the 2022 conference and banned the king from going.
Bennett said there was “good reason to believe Sunak is trying to reset his image”.
He added: “Polls show climate and nature feature very high in voters’ concerns – above immigration, according to some polling – so it’s not a surprise that Rishi Sunak will be trying to tack back to those voters. It is also worth noting that there are many environmental promises the government has not delivered, such as releasing beavers, banning peat sales and the deposit return scheme.”
Kevin Bishop, the chief executive of Dartmoor National Park Authority, said before the government announces a new park, it should be properly funding existing ones.
Since the Conservative party came to power in 2010, national parks had experienced budget cuts that led to the closure of visitor centres, he said. Many were in a poor state for nature as they were overgrazed by livestock and otherwise poorly maintained.
Bishop added: “The priority should be about funding the existing national parks. During the age of austerity, which for us has not ended, our core funding in real terms has been cut by 50%. The announcement does include additional money for existing national parks, which will not cover what has been cut but is welcome. However we do not know the detail.
“We are struggling to retain staff because they can earn more money in other jobs, we haven’t enough staff to do practical work or to deliver the landscapes review proposals about welcoming everyone to our national parks.”
Bennett welcomed parts of the package, including the expansion of payments to land managers who would club together to create large landscape recovery projects for England’s rarest habitats.
He said: “It’s really good to see the expansion of landscape recovery. This is the area of the environment land management schemes that has been oversubscribed and has such potential for nature that to roll this out further will make a difference. The rainforest strategy also will be welcome, depending on what it contains.”
The prime minister said he shared in the country’s “profound sense of anger” over the felling of the world-famous Sycamore Gap tree, near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, in September “but the public’s outrage fundamentally demonstrated just how much love the British people have for the natural world”.
He added: “From Yorkshire’s historic rolling moors to ancient rainforest on the Cornish coast, we are home to many globally significant landscapes. We must do all it takes to protect these much-loved spaces and ensure that love for the natural world continues into the next generations.
“As I head to Cop28, we are reasserting the UK’s leading role in promoting our iconic landscapes and keeping nature at the centre of our action to tackle climate change.”