The absence of UK from a crucial statement committing to ambitious climate action was conspicuous on Wednesday. Normally a prominent member of the “high ambition coalition” of nations advocating for faster greenhouse gas emission reductions, the UK was notably missing from the list of 17 signatories. Among those who did sign were France, Spain, Kenya, and Chile. Additionally, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak was not present at the climate ambition summit in New York, hosted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres during the UN General Assembly.
Instead of participating in these events, the UK Prime Minister was preparing to execute a significant policy reversal related to climate action , a move that has surprised and concerned other nations and environmental experts. Downing Street hinted at proposed changes, which they are expected to unveil later, that could weaken key net-zero measures. These changes include postponing the ban on new diesel and petrol cars and delaying the transition away from new gas boilers.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, was the sole UK representative speaking at the UN climate ambition summit. He emphasized the urgency of addressing the climate emergency, stating, “The deadly impacts are here now, and we have to act urgently.”
UN General Assembly
Earlier in the month, Sunak announced he wouldn’t attend the UN General Assembly due to a busy schedule. However, subsequent disclosures indicated that if he had attended, organizers might have excluded him from speaking at the climate ambition summit because they would have only allowed countries with stringent emissions reduction plans in place to participate.
The timing of Sunak’s anticipated policy shift raised eyebrows, with some viewing it as a deliberate attempt to divert attention. Tom Burke, a government adviser and co-founder of the E3G think tank, characterized it as “headline management” designed to provoke outrage and possibly protests. He also noted that the resulting uncertainty could delay investment in energy-related projects as companies wait for the government’s stance to stabilize.
Helen Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group, which organized Climate Week New York, expressed her disappointment in the UK’s leadership on climate issues crumbling. She questioned the Prime Minister‘s decision to weaken policies crucial for meeting legally binding climate commitments during Climate Week NYC.
Sunak’s actions deeply dismayed developing country campaigners, including Mohamed Adow from the Kenyan think tank Power Shift Africa. Adow labeled it a “disgusting betrayal” of vulnerable populations worldwide and a form of economic harm to the UK. He also pointed out that the UK, historically, played a significant role in creating the climate crisis through its development of the combustion engine.