COP27 uncertainty and climate promises: What is UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s stance on the climate?

, by Elsie Haldane

COP27 uncertainty and climate promises: What is UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's stance on the climate?
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Leaving For His First PMQs. Credit: Number 10, Pixabay.

The first few weeks of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s premiership have certainly been tumultuous. Becoming the third Prime Minister this year, he has been met with a host of challenges for the country upon taking up his post, including a cost of living crisis and an ongoing war in Europe. However, the challenge that is currently rearing its head is the UK’s response to the climate crisis, including representing the country at this year’s COP27 in Egypt.

Rishi Sunak initially decided that he would not attend the COP27, implying that he was ‘too busy’ stating that he needed to focus on the ‘depressing domestic challenges’ facing the UK instead. The Prime Minister may have been referring to new economic plans for the UK, as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt plans to unveil a new economic plan to try to steady the turbulent economy on the 17th of November.

Of course, this attracted much criticism around the world with many doubting the UK government’s commitment to tackling climate change. Other influential figures from the UK had confirmed their attendance before the Prime Minister, such as First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The fact that the leader of the nation’s government had decided not to attend was controversial, and the UK’s COP26 President, Alok Sharma, was among many pushing for the Prime Minister to go.

A welcome change of heart

However, due to a variety of potential factors, Mr Sunak has recently announced that he will in fact attend the COP27. This has been welcomed by many who understand the importance of his presence as a major player in climate change strategies and negotiations. However, his change of mind has not blocked criticism, which now also observes his lack of firm commitment to the world’s biggest climate change conference. One climate expert told the BBC that ‘The Sunak flip-flop doesn’t demonstrate the level of leadership Johnson had’. He has even attracted criticism from overseas, with the Spanish environmental minister Teresa Ribera describing his initial refusal and subsequent flip-flopping as ‘sad’ and ‘surprising’.

The UK and the climate crisis - ‘Is this how our story is due to end’?

The UK was at the heart of climate crisis strategy last year with the COP26 being held in Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in attendance, stating that ‘If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow. After holding the event, the UK held the COP Presidency, which has just been handed over by Alok Sharma to Egypt. However, many criticised the event for ‘greenwashing’, with activist Greta Thunberg condemning the event as ‘a failure’.

The Prime Minister’s stance

The news of the Prime Minister’s initial withdrawal from the COP27 was accompanied by the decision that King Charles III will not attend the COP27 himself, despite being a previously outspoken advocate for tackling climate change. The King has instead hosted a COP27 ‘reception’ at Buckingham Palace. Speaking at the King’s reception, Mr Sunak said that ‘if we do not act today, we will risk leaving an ever more desperate inheritance for our children’. It is thought that he will urge other world leaders to move ‘further and faster’ on transitioning to renewable energy.

As far as promises go, Mr Sunak pledged to build more offshore windfarms in a plan to make the UK ‘energy independent’ by 2045 during the Conservative party leadership race. In terms of actions, the UK government has reinstated a ban on fracking, including the Prime Minister who voted in favour of the ban.

Despite this, the uncertainty over the Prime Minister’s attendance at the COP27 has not inspired confidence in the UK’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis. The demotion of the government’s climate minister, Graham Stuart, from his influential seat around Mr Sunak’s cabinet table has also not inspired much confidence in the PM’s prioritisation of the environment in his future plans.

Upon opening the COP27 in Egypt, Alok Sharma has tweeted that he ‘remains hopeful’ of the ‘challenge ahead’. The actions of the UK government have suggested mixed responses to the climate emergency, and in the first weeks of his premiership, the question on our minds remains: how will the new Prime Minister cement the UK’s role in the increasingly desperate battle to save our planet?

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