Downing Street has announced that the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, won’t travel to the Cop27 climate conference. If he had chosen to join world leaders in Egypt in two weeks’ time it would have been a helpful signal of his commitment to the UK’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and put him at the forefront of efforts to address one of the biggest threats facing the global community.
Egypt’s chief climate negotiator has urged Sunak not to let economic challenges lead to “backsliding on pledges”, while at the same time a series of worrying reports published this week have indicated that the UK and the world are way off track when it comes to ensuring a stable future for people, our environment and economies. Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle has left out key climate voices, including Graham Stuart, formerly the climate minister, and Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president. He needs to show that, on the climate and nature crises, his government is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater and understands the seriousness of the challenges it is facing.
During its presidency of Cop26, held in Glasgow, the UK demonstrated strong climate leadership as it emerged from the pandemic. It negotiated to increase country climate commitments, supporting a shift from 30 per cent to 90 per cent of the global economy being covered by net-zero targets; it proactively engaged the business community, resulting in 60 of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies with £700bn annual turnover committing to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The UK’s immediate legacy in the form of the Glasgow Climate Pact calls on governments to revisit and set more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets and urges wealthy nations to double climate finance for adaptation by 2025.
Yet as we approach the next Cop in Sharm El Sheikh, the latest data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) indicates the UK is not quite on track to meet its 2030 climate targets. At the same time a report from the UN warns global average temperature rises may be on course for above 2°C – a dangerous level – even if climate targets are reached, so it is obvious that all governments, including the UK, will inevitably need to do much more by 2030 to catalyse action. Even fractions of degrees will save lives, livelihoods and ecosystems that otherwise would be lost.
[See also: Will Rishi Sunak U-turn on Cop27?]
A strong UK leadership presence at this year’s climate summit would help to indicate that the UK is still dedicated to achieving net zero, reaffirming its commitment to support global efforts to limit warming to the lowest increases possible, and sending an important signal home that Sunak is committed to meeting the UK’s own decarbonisation target. On a global problem like this, international diplomacy is a necessary requirement to ensure the safety and security of the UK and the world.
Research from the UK Corporate Leaders Group shows that strong leadership on the energy, climate and nature crises can support economic growth. Policies supporting the net-zero transition can create more consistent growth and better welfare outcomes for people than picking up again with business as usual. By strengthening our own strategy for achieving net zero and nature restoration, the new PM can help to secure energy stability. This includes removing our dependency on fossil fuels and unpredictable petrostates, improving the cost-of-living crisis by stabilising the economy and reducing fuel costs with increased renewables share in the UK mix, and supporting insulation and energy efficiency education, at the same time shifting the UK to a net-zero model.
Alongside decarbonisation, globally we need to protect and restore nature, and this moment of focus needs to widen to include the parallel Cop15 biodiversity summit in December. Revivifying nature can also reduce emissions if delivered in a holistic, thought-through way that interlinks and integrates with other climate and nature action. The need for a pro-nature, systemic approach is at the heart of recent criticism of the UK government’s removal of EU directive-derived environmental laws and fear that the post-Brexit Elms land management scheme will be scrapped. A recent YouGov poll found businesses have a strong appetite for more net-zero regulation. It is vital that the UK looks at shoring up environmental regulation rather than weakening it, including in areas such as planning, building and agriculture, to address the multiple crises we face.
There’s no denying Sunak and his cabinet have their work cut out for them, but if they don’t face up to climate change and its impacts they will be failing to tackle one of the most serious challenges of all. Having a strong team showing up at Cop27 to continue the UK’s important work, maintain international leadership and tell the electorate that this government understands what’s at stake could put the wind at their backs. The challenge now is to reassure businesses, the markets and the watching world that the UK and its new Prime Minister are still serious about tackling the climate crisis and achieving net zero.
This article is a part of a series exploring what we need from Cop27. See more in the series here.