Mr Sunak told the crucial global conference that “climate politics is close to breaking point” – but also claimed he would only cut emissions in a way that “benefits the British people”.
The Tory leader was grilled on whether he was taking Cop28 seriously, given he would be spending more time travelling on his private jet – 14 hours to and from the UAE – than negotiating at the summit.
The PM – spending only 11 hours in Dubai – fired back at the “hugely simplistic” idea. “I wouldn’t measure our impact by hours spent – I would measure it by the actual things we are doing to make a difference.”
The row came as:
Rishi Sunak said it was “entirely sensible” to worry about taxpayers’ money when meeting climate targets
The PM was accused of a “smoke and mirrors accounting trick” over a £1.6bn pledge
Keir Starmer claimed he had more requests for meetings at Cop28 than he could “possibly handle”
The King warned world leaders they were “dreadfully far off track” on climate change
Before flying back on Friday, Mr Sunak insisted that the UK government can still “stand tall” at Cop28 and remains a “leader” on climate change – despite his own rollback of net zero ambitions at home.
The PM has scaled back a host of net zero targets and vowed to “max out” UK oil and gas reserves by granting new North Sea drilling licences.
Insisting he would not be “in hock to ideological zealots”, Mr Sunak promised “hand on heart” that no world leaders had criticised him for delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035.
“Not a single leader I’ve met today has spoken about that. Do you know why? Most of their targets are less ambitious than the UK.”
Labour described Mr Sunak’s speech to Cop28 as “complacent”, with shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband accusing him of being “in denial about the energy bills crisis at home and the weakening of the United Kingdom’s standing abroad”.
Mr Sunak came in for criticism for only spending a brief spell at Cop28 – contrasting with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer being in Dubai for three days, and the King spending two days at the summit.
Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay said Mr Sunak “seems to spend more time on private jets than he does working on climate crisis solutions”.
And Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said Mr Sunak had “flown in and out of this Dubai gig like yesterday’s chart-topper – crooning about the UK’s past glories as a climate leader but with little new material to offer”.
Sir Keir is holding a series of meetings at the UAE event in a bid to position himself as a PM-in-waiting, stressing that Britain would be open to major green investment if he wins power.
Mr Sunak accused Sir Keir of “just trying to catch up”. The Tory leader used his Cop28 appearance to announce a deal between Masdar and RWE to invest up to £11bn in a new wind farm at Dogger Bank.
But Sir Keir accused Mr Sunak of “retreating” from the climate mission and seeing it “as an unwanted obligation” – attacking the “smallness of his politics”.
“We saw it with some of the lines that he was putting out about ‘eco zealots’ as he got on the plane to come here. This is not something to shrink from, not something to retreat from,” the Labour leader added.
Sir Keir claimed he had more requests for meetings with world leaders and officials at Cop28 “than we can possible handle”, as he pledged to play a “full part on the international stage” if Labour wins power.
Mr Sunak announced £1.6bn for international climate finance – including to support projects to halt deforestation and accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
But ActionAid UK said Mr Sunak’s £1.6bn pledge was simply a “smoke and mirrors accounting trick” based on “reheated pledges from years gone by”.
Zahra Hdidou, the charity’s senior climate adviser, said the sum was “neither new nor additional”. The campaigner said the PM was “refusing to act meaningfully on climate action”.
Zac Goldsmith – who quit as an environment minister after accusing Mr Sunak of being “uninterested” in the issue – told Sky News that the UK was no longer seen as “a reliable or serious partner” on climate change.
Senior Tory MP Chris Skidmore – the former government net zero tsar – said the country could not wait for the “technologies of tomorrow” to decarbonise its industries.
The new row comes as the King has warned that the world remains “dreadfully far off track” in key climate targets in the opening speech at Cop28.
The monarch warned of the “vast, frightening experiment” in rising temperatures, and he said he prayed for “transformation action” from global leaders.
On Friday world leaders agreed a new declaration aimed at transforming the global food system. It follows the pledge of £330m towards a fund for nations suffering most from the effects of climate change.
Cop28 president Sultan al-Jaber, chief executive of state oil giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, has been accused of seeking to use the conference to strike oil and gas deals – which he has denied.
Mr Sunak denied that the allegations undermine the UAE’s position leading the negotiations. The UAE’s president Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, meanwhile, announced a £23.7bn fund for “global climate solutions”.