February 29, 2024

Rishi Sunak will pledge to spend GBP 1.6 billion ($2 billion) on climate projects, as the British premier arrives at the COP28 summit trying to show leaders the UK remains committed to the cause after he watered down his government’s green agenda and promised to boost oil and gas exploration.

The UK will contribute up to GBP 40 million for the key loss and damage fund to help vulnerable countries cope with the impact of rising temperatures, GBP 500 million to tackle deforestation and about GBP 300 million for energy innovation projects, the government said late Thursday, confirming a Bloomberg News report. Almost half of the GBP 1.6 billion is new funding not included in the UK’s five-year, GBP 11.6 billion climate aid funding pledge which runs to 2026.

Britain has long tried to present itself as a global leader in the shift to renewable energy from fossil fuels, especially when it hosted the flagship climate summit in 2021 — an event Sunak’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, used to try to rebuild the UK’s international reputation after Brexit.

Rishi Sunak announces he is scaling back the UK government’s green agenda at a news conference in Downing Street on Sept. 20.

But the politics in Sunak’s governing Conservative Party have changed dramatically since then, and the prime minister is trying to use green policy and climate change to draw a dividing line with the poll-leading opposition Labour Party ahead of a general election expected next year.

In September, Sunak scaled back a series of green commitments including delaying a ban on the sale of new fossil-fuel cars and easing rules on when some Britons replace their gas boilers — central planks of a legally-binding commitment to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

“I’m not in hock to ideological zealots on this topic,” Sunak told reporters on Thursday. “Of course we’re going to get to net zero, of course it’s important, but we can do that in a sensible way that saves people money and doesn’t burden them with extra costs.”

The problem for Sunak is that he risks being upstaged by Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is also in Dubai to meet heads of state and business leaders. He’ll pledge to make Britain the “green finance capital of the world” and mobilize private finance behind climate action by requiring financial institutions and FTSE 100 firms to publish their carbon footprint and adopt climate transition plans.

Trailing Labour by 20 points in the polls, Sunak is having to get used to executives and prime ministers seeking meetings with Starmer even at events hosted by the UK government. That happened during his investment summit this week, while a UK-Greece diplomatic spat meant Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis left London on Monday having spoken to Starmer but not Sunak.

Sunak’s argument for slowing down on climate change is that the UK is ahead of many of its peers and that it’s unfair on British taxpayers to do more until other countries have caught up. But the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee said in June that Britain’s chances of achieving its climate goals are getting slimmer, just as the government should be accelerating efforts. 

Gareth Redmond King, international lead at Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, likened Sunak’s approach to the hare in the fable of the hare and the tortoise, pointing to the scale of investments in clean technology from China, the European Union and the US.

“You’re only a leader while you’re still leading,” he said. “You stop and stand still and demand that everybody else catches up with you, then you lose your leadership and people overtake you.”

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a thumbs up at a news conference at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow on Nov. 10, 2021.

Johnson’s legacy will also be hanging over Sunak as he lands in Dubai, where COP28 is being billed as the first global stock-take of progress toward ensuring the world’s average temperature rise does not exceed 1.5C.

 According to Lavanya Rajamani, professor of international environmental law at the University of Oxford, one of the biggest achievements from the UK’s COP summit was for all countries to align their plans with 1.5C rather than 2C.

“That was an achievement of the UK government,” she said. “It was their legacy from the COP, so they need to be able to show that they’ve put the plans in place to actually make that possible.”

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