Rishi Sunak hits back at accusations of 'leadership failure' after Cop27 snub

Opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says opportunity to work with world leaders is 'not an event to shun'

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended his decision to miss Cop27 amid a wave of criticism, arguing that it is right for him to focus on addressing economic challenges at home.

The new Conservative leader was accused of “a massive failure of leadership” when he decided he would not attend the UN climate change conference in Egypt next month.

Critics have argued his absence will “make a mockery” of his government's commitment to tackle climate change.

Downing Street on Friday confirmed King Charles III had been advised not to attend the summit, arguing it is not the “right occasion” for him to make the trip. It followed a report that former prime minister Liz Truss had urged the monarch not to make an appearance.

“As is standard practice, government advice was sought and provided under a previous PM, and it was unanimously agreed that it would not be the right occasion for the king to visit in person,” a No 10 spokeswoman said.

Mr Sunak on Friday hit back at criticism, insisting he is “really proud” of the UK’s record on tackling global warming, particularly with regard to Cop.

He cited the fact that Britain hosted the global summit in Glasgow last year.

Responding to accusations that his decision to shun the gathering amounted to failing in his premiership, he said: “No. The leadership that we have shown on the climate is unmatched almost along the world.”

Speaking during a visit to a hospital in south London, he added: “It’s important to me that as prime minister we leave behind an environment that is better for our children and grandchildren. I’m very passionate about that. I’m very personally committed to it.

“I just think, at the moment, it’s right that I’m also focusing on the depressing domestic challenges we have with the economy. I think that’s what people watching would reasonably expect me to be doing as well.”

Opposition Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised Mr Sunak's decision, tweeting: “Britain showing up to work with world leaders is an opportunity to grasp. Not an event to shun.”

Mr Sunak took office on Monday and has delayed an autumn fiscal statement to November 17 as he looks to tackle a cost-of-living crisis and restore credibility damaged in the short tenure of his predecessor Ms Truss.

Ms Truss was set to attend the UN climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh but Downing Street said on Thursday that Mr Sunak would instead focus on “pressing domestic commitments”.

“The UK will be fully represented by other senior ministers, as well as Cop26 president Alok Sharma,” said a Downing Street spokeswoman.

She said Mr Sunak was “absolutely committed” to supporting the climate conference and denied the decision signalled a downgrading of climate change as a priority.

“We remain committed to net zero and to leading international and domestic action to tackle climate change,” she said.

“The UK is forging before many other countries on net zero. We will obviously continue to work closely with Egypt as the hosts of Cop27 and to make sure that all countries are making progress on the historic commitments they made at the Glasgow climate pact.”

Questions have been asked in the past about Mr Sunak’s commitment to tackling climate change, not least when he cut taxes on fuel and flying a few days before the UK hosted last year’s UN summit in Glasgow.

No 10 also confirmed the demotion of the position of environment minister as Graham Stuart was reappointed to the role but stripped of his entitlement to attend Cabinet. Mr Sharma will also no longer attend.

It is not unusual for a head of government to miss the UN summit. Although Ms Truss planned to take part, world leaders tend to attend the UN conference only every few years when bigger agreements are being negotiated.

Last year’s gathering in Glasgow was the biggest since the meeting in Paris in 2015 that produced a global agreement to limit temperature rises.

Ms Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson attended the Glasgow meeting while David Cameron, who was prime minister when the 2015 meeting was held, went to the French capital.

Shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband said: “This is a massive failure of climate leadership. We were the Cop26 hosts and now the UK prime minister isn’t even bothering to turn up to Cop27.

“What Rishi Sunak obviously fails to understand is that tackling the climate crisis isn’t just about our reputation and standing abroad, but the opportunities for lower bills, jobs and energy security it can deliver at home.”

But Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said the prime minister “is right not to go to Cop” and said the move would save the taxpayer money from hotel bills in Egypt.

“The cost of living won’t be solved in Sharm El Sheikh where each hotel room for the conference is £2,000 ($2,300) a night,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

Speaking on LBC on Friday morning, Therese Coffey, the government's newly appointed environment secretary, said Mr Sunak would show “global leadership,” rather than attending “just a gathering of people in Egypt”.

She insisted the “big political” summits take place only every five years, with next month’s being more “low key,” despite US president Joe Biden planning to attend.

Speaking on Radio 4, she dismissed suggestions the environment was not a focus for the government.

“[The] UK has set challenging climate change commitments in terms of what we are aiming to do, in terms of reducing carbon emissions. We hosted a very significant Cop last year in Glasgow [where] a lot of progress was made,” said Ms Coffey.

Climate activists and opposition MPs have been urging the new prime minister to go further on his windfall tax as the profits of oil and gas companies soar.

Downing Street said “nothing is off the table” before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's autumn budget on November 17.

Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “The first test of leadership is to turn up. The new PM’s decision not to attend Cop27 makes a mockery of any government claims on continued climate leadership — and what a shameful way to end the UK’s Cop presidency.”

Gareth Redmond-King, at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit advisory organisation, questioned if pulling out was a good decision by the new administration.

“The UK built a global reputation for leading on climate at Cop26, welcoming dozens of presidents and prime ministers to Glasgow,” he said.

“By not turning up to mark the end of the UK’s presidency year, is Sunak missing a trick? And what does it say to allies like the US, as well as to the British public who want the UK to show leadership on climate change?”

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said the move suggested that Mr Sunak did not take climate change “seriously enough”.

“The UK government is supposed to hand over the Cop presidency to their Egyptian counterparts at next month’s summit,” she said.

“For Rishi Sunak not to show up is like a runner failing to turn up with the baton at a crucial stage of the relay.”

Cop27 baton relay — in pictures

King Charles will not be attending the climate conference after palace and government officials decided it would not be the best place for the new head of state to make his first international appearance.

By convention, all overseas official visits by members of the royal family are undertaken in accordance with advice from the government.

The known environmentalist attended the Cop26 as Prince of Wales, but his place in Egypt has been in doubt since he became king.

Conservative minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe told Parliament on Thursday that the king’s presence at the conference was “a matter for the palace”.

She hailed his global reputation as an environmental campaigner and denied he had been barred from travelling.

John Kerry, the US special envoy on climate change, said the king's participation at Cop could be “very powerful” and “make a difference”.

“I think it would be terrific, personally,” he told Sky News.

“I know that his being there would make a difference … because he has credibility because he has been a long-term leader.

“I think it would be very powerful.”

UK's Prince Charles says Cop26 success depends on 'sustained commitment' — video

Updated: October 28, 2022, 2:33 PM
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