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2 November 2022

Could Rishi Sunak U-turn on Cop27?

The Prime Minister may now conclude that the political risks of not attending the climate conference are too great.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak has been Prime Minister for just over a week and his premiership has been a bumpy ride so far.

After vowing to bring “integrity and accountability” to Downing Street, Sunak appointed Suella Braverman Home Secretary. She was forced to resign from Liz Truss‘s cabinet over a security leak in which she shared official documents from her personal email account (and thus broke the ministerial code). Braverman is mired in fresh controversy over reports that she ignored legal advice on leaving migrants for extended periods at the Manston processing centre in Kent. Manston is designed to hold 1,600 migrants for a maximum of 24 hours but is currently occupied by 2,600, some of whom have been there for up to four weeks. The centre been described as “wretched” and is dealing with outbreaks of diseases including diphtheria.

Secondly, given the economic chaos of Truss’s mini-Budget, Sunak’s time in charge has been marked by U-turns, on everything from fracking to (potentially) the pensions triple lock. But he is yet to make an about-turn on arguably the most important issue facing the country: climate change. Last week No 10 said Sunak would not be attending Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, which starts on 6 November, saying the PM had “pressing domestic commitments”.

Sunak’s non-attendance will affect perceptions of his leadership internationally. Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron will be among those attending; Downing Street has even stopped the King from doing so. Climate change is, of course, an urgent domestic issue for every country. Whether it is an increase in floods, water shortages, grassland fires, heat exhaustion or the prospect of 40°C heat hospitalising pensioners, the UK would be no exception to catastrophe.

There is now a major Tory backlash and Sunak may be forced to change his mind. Alok Sharma has openly criticised the PM and Boris Johnson is reportedly going to be attending the conference. Downing Street has said “going depends on progress” and the Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, said the government would send the “strongest possible team”.

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Three worrying new reports were issued by the UN last week, including the Emissions Gap Report, which warned there is currently “no credible pathway” to limiting global warming to 1.5°C and averting climate disaster.

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Sunak’s willingness to duck the summit has caused outcry in part because he was not a green chancellor. In one Budget announcement, for example, he failed to mention climate change altogether, and was seen as a block to Boris Johnson’s net zero ambitions. As PM Sunak has already stripped Alok Sharma, Cop president, and Graham Stuart, climate change minister, of cabinet status, and told MPs on the European Research Group the government would keep the ban on onshore wind – which would make the UK an outlier at Cop, where even countries like Poland, who are still dependent on coal, are loosening rules on wind farms.

Sharma went public to say he is “disappointed” and hopes Sunak will choose to go and “send a signal” about the UK. Britain hosted the summit last year but Truss’s lifting the ban on fracking sparked alarm.

Being wobbly on Cop27 leaves Sunak open to accusations of weakness. That No 10 softened its position after it emerged Johnson could be going only adds to that impression. But given polls regularly show climate change is increasingly the top issue for voters, the bigger risk for Sunak is not showing up at all.

This article was originally published on 31 October and has been kept updated with the latest information.

[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27?]