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  • Nathan Goode
  • 5 minutes
  • 28/10/2022

Too busy to save the planet

With Prime Minister Rishi Sunak opting out of COP27 in Egypt, Nathan Goode examines the worrying implications of a government that is apathetic to a global climate crisis.

Just a day after UN Secretary-General António Guterres publicly, firmly and – it must be said – very courteously underlined the need for the UK Prime Minister to attend COP27 in November, Rishi Sunak decided he was too busy.

We’ve all been there. Up to our ears in the day job and the last thing we want is a big strategic set piece that knocks a hole in our schedule. Too many papers to write, emails to answer, people to
manage. And let’s be honest, our new PM has a lot to get right.

It’s just that these troublesome strategic set pieces can be VERY IMPORTANT. They might actually decide our future. And it matters to other people that we are seen to be there. It’s a huge signal of our commitment to sustainability measures, and a signal that many will be looking out for amidst  such uncertainty. Our attendance might actually affect the outcome, too.

That Mr Sunak appears to think it’s OK to opt out of the world’s most crucial summit is – to say the least – a discouraging sign. For anyone hoping the UK can start to rebuild its tarnished international reputation under this premiership, this is not a good start.

Reading the room

In 2021, of course, the UK was delighted to host and gather the plaudits for COP26. We must have pulled out all the stops to get the great and the good to come to Glasgow. 120 world leaders made
the trip.

This year, Egypt is hosting COP27 – at the end of a year of extreme heat, flooding and forest fires across the globe, which have resulted in deaths, destroyed property and crops and paralysed
infrastructure systems. Every year, the urgency for global collaboration on climate change accelerates; and yet the UK Government seems to think its leader can sit this one out. The casual arrogance is breathtaking.

It’s not just a no-show from the PM. The King too, it seems, has been discouraged from attending. The UK’s representative, Alok Sharma (COP26 President) will attend, but this week lost his
ministerial status in Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet reshuffle. Meanwhile, the Climate Minister, Graham Stuart, will no longer attend cabinet meetings.

Reality check

The UK Government would have us believe that it is ‘business as usual’ for the UK as global leaders on Net Zero. The statement issued by Number 10 to explain Mr Sunak’s non-attendance appears at first sight to be blandly supportive of the COP but on closer inspection is at best high-handed – and at worst, downright disrespectful.

The statement said: “The UK is forging ahead of 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 [my italics] on the historic commitments they made at the Glasgow climate pact. ” A bold position if we interrogate the detail. Yes, our national commitments are challenging and progressive but all things are relative and we have a long way to go still. The UK’s annual per capita carbon emissions are 5.55 tonnes per person. It must be said this better than many of its wealthy peers in the Global North – but we have offshored a certain amount of the problem. In any case the world average is 4.79 tonnes. I would argue that “leadership” isn’t usually associated with being in the bottom 50%.

The UK Government’s own Committee on Climate Change published its latest progress report in June. Their message essentially is that there is still more talk than action in the UK. The UK has a strategy but, says the Committee, “tangible progress is lagging the policy ambition”.

Contextualising our privilege

Remember the average world figure of 4.79 tonnes of carbon per person. Fossil fuel-dependent Egypt (accounting for 90% of its energy mix) generates 2.32 tonnes of carbon per person. India 1.91 tonnes. Pakistan 0.87 tonnes. Which countries are in the front-line when it comes to climate change impact? Where is catastrophe striking first, through a combination of geographical accident and weak resilience? The inequalities are screaming at us.

And if people in the Global South feel that the countries of the Global North are only prepared to engage in climate change action as and when it suits them, the flippancy of the UK’s response surely just adds fuel to the fire.

Regardless of any protestations that there is substantive work going on behind the scenes and outside the ambit of the COP summit itself, we all know how important visible leadership and
commitment are for difficult challenges that require the commitment of the many.

The optics of this are awful. It is simply not credible that the UK Prime Minister’s team is incapable of managing his domestic commitments to give him at least some time with his fellow leaders to discuss one of the principal existential threats to humanity. It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister just doesn’t care that much. It’s not even as if COP27 has just popped into the schedule.

Rishi Sunak may feel he can afford to skip this one, but climate change isn’t going to wait for him to reengage. And with so many across the UK waiting for a clear commitment to sustainability from his government, this feels like a damaging early signal.

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Nathan Goode

Chief Strategy Officer

Nathan leads Social Value Portal’s strategic division. This includes the company’s approach to Social Value data and analytics, and embedding Social Value TOM System-based measurement in broader Social Value contexts and approaches. He brings over 20 years of experience working on evaluation, procurement and commissioning of major projects and programmes, and has a particular passion for environmental matters.