This weekend the prime minister is heading to the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.
Rishi Sunak is not going for a late sunshine break after his first fortnight in Number 10, he will be representing the UK at the COP27 climate change summit in Egypt.
He made a point of announcing that he was not going to COP27. His presence alongside dozens of world leaders including Presidents Biden and Macron will therefore represent a change of heart by the government, perhaps even a U-turn.
Boris Johnson also confirmed on Sky News that he’ll be attending. The successful hosting of last year’s COP is one of the bright spots of his tarnished premiership. Whether the ex-prime minister’s high-profile attendance encouraged the current prime minister to turn up is a matter of conjecture.
Johnson’s father, the environmentalist Stanley Johnson is campaigning for the government to abandon Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Retained EU Law (revocation and reform) Bill currently going through parliament, which would mean that all environmental protection laws inherited from the EU would be dropped at the end of 2023.
Sunak’s vacillations reflect growing ambivalence about the effectiveness of the annual COP – “Conference of the Parties” – meetings which have been held since 1995 under the auspices of the United Nations Frame Work Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC).
No Greta, no King Charles
Some countries, and leading politicians, are resisting practical steps towards “net zero” by 2050 – the agreed goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions in the hope that the world’s temperature rise will be kept below 2C and, preferably 1.5C.
Some of the best-known environmental activists are not going to COP27. Greta Thunberg is boycotting the event, dismissing COPs as “blah, blah, blah” and “greenwashing” opportunities for leaders to advertise their concern about global warming without actually doing anything about it.
The Egyptian authorities have also warned they will take a tougher line with protesters than the welcome they received in Glasgow last year. On the advice of Liz Truss, upheld subsequently by Sunak, King Charles III will not be at the meeting either. He settled for hosting a pre-summit reception in London instead.
Sunak’s change of plan is significant. It is a reaffirmation of the UK’s commitment to global cooperation on climate change after a summer Tory leadership campaign which flirted with radical alternative ideas.
A vociferous minority of Conservative activists are reluctant to support practical steps towards net zero, which may be costly or unattractive. They include 19 Conservative MPs in the so-called “Net Zero Scrutiny Group”, which has substantial membership overlap with the pro-Brexit European Research Group.
‘Just a gathering of people in Egypt’
During her successful campaign Liz Truss opposed onshore wind farms and solar farms and Sunak agreed with her. In the light of the Ukraine war and the cutting of Russian gas supplies to Europe they both backed new drilling licences in the North Sea.
Since then Sunak has re-instated the ban on fracking, which was never popular with local Conservatives. The government has also delayed a decision on whether to give the go-ahead with the controversial deep coal mine off the coast of Cumbria.
In his ministerial reshuffle, the new prime minister sacked Alok Sharma, the current chair of COP from the cabinet and demoted Graham Stuart the climate minister. The government’s continuing dismissive attitude to COP was embodied in the remark by Truss’s deputy prime minister Therese Coffey that it was “just a gathering of people in Egypt”.
She is now Sunak’s environment secretary and will be there anyway. Sunak has the chance to give more committed leadership to the British team.
Sunak’s original excuse for giving COP a miss was that he needed to concentrate on the current economic crisis in the run-up to the chancellor’s autumn statement on 17 November.
His tweet shortly before Prime Minister’s Questions announcing his changed plans took a different approach, drawing together issues which had been set against each other: “There is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change. There is no energy security without investing in renewables. That is why I will attend @COP27P next week: to deliver on Glasgow’s legacy of building a secure and sustainable future.”
Few new ideas
The annual COPs are really stock-taking exercises to check how countries are living up to commitments already made. There are no major new initiatives planned in Egypt, perhaps because nations are struggling to live up to what they have already promised.
Members were supposed to come back with updated plans to close the “emissions gap” between the amount which needs to be cut and the smaller reductions they currently plan. Only 24 out of 193 nations have produced an update, including the UK.
Experts estimate that only Australia and “possibly” India have come up with fresh ideas. The United Nations warned this week there is “no credible pathway” to keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5C. UNESCO reported that will mean glaciers disappear in a score of world heritage sites in Africa, America, Asia and Europe.
Their loss is symptomatic of the melting of the world’s ice, the cryosphere, which could raise the sea level by 27cm, further accelerating the extreme weather events – flooding, storms, droughts, fires – now occurring with record frequency.
Seventeen of the 20 countries most severely impacted by climate change are in Africa. Organisers hope that the meeting in Egypt will be the “Africa COP” focusing on the continent’s needs.
But the rich nations have not honoured their promise to give developing countries $100bn to deal with the consequences of global warming.
Fart tax and Russia’s energy war
The UK is not the only nation cutting its foreign aid budget. There is no agreement on the proposed “loss and damage mechanism”, whereby the rich industrialised countries would acknowledge they are responsible for carbon pollution and compensate poor nations for the damage it is doing them.
A pledge to reduce emissions of methane, the second biggest global warming gas after carbon dioxide, by 30% was one of the triumphs of COP26. But in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is now trailing in polls for re-election in part because of her proposed “fart tax” on farmers according to the size of their cattle and sheep herds.
Russia’s use of energy supply as a weapon has made things worse. With gas pipelines closing down, Europe is switching to transported liquified natural gas (LNG) which has a much greater carbon footprint. Germany is now keeping open coal fired power stations, one of the worst polluters.
Their dependence on coal led China and India to water down last year’s agreement, reducing Alok Sharma to tears. Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin are not expected in Sharm El Sheikh next week.
Only about half the delegations are due to be led by their president or prime minister.
The good news
There is some good news. The recent election of President Lula should give the Amazon a breathing space from deforestation. If implemented the RePowerEU plan responding to Russia’s manipulation of gas supply should hasten decarbonisation in Europe.
President Joe Biden’s IRA, Inflation Reduction Act, channels resources to major clean energy projects.
Still there is concern that there may not be an agreed closing text at COP27. Hot topics are likely to be kicked onto COP28, already scheduled in Abu Dhabi next year.
If the Conservative party has stabilised by then, Sunak will have to be there. And if the prime minister means what he says about prosperity and climate change, he will still face difficult choices.