Will Rishi Sunak’s flying visit to Cop27 show us his real stance on climate?


PM has chance to set out exactly where he stands on green issues, but don’t expect him to give too much away

Rishi Sunak’s whistle-stop visit to the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt is the overseas debut for a prime minister still largely untested in diplomatic matters. But at the same time it is a trip primarily shaped by domestic concerns.

If it always seemed possible that Sunak would U-turn on his much-criticised initial decision to entirely skip the Sharm el-Sheikh gathering, news that Boris Johnson planned to go presumably sealed the decision.

Sunak is both a notably callow politician to be inside No 10, with just seven years in parliament and fewer than three in the cabinet, and one whose policy experience has been almost entirely UK-focused.

It thus possibly made sense last week for Downing Street to believe that Sunak was better served focusing on the buildup to the 17 November fiscal statement than making a 10-hour return trip to a complex, technical and hugely pressured non-stop negotiation, one where national leaders tend to mainly be figureheads, or at best motivators.

For all Johnson’s keenness to go to Egypt it should not be forgotten that even when the UK hosted last year’s Cop26 in Glasgow, the then prime minister attended just the opening, before making a fleeting return visit at the end.

However, much of the top-level choreography at Cop summits is about symbolism, and for the leader of the country that still holds the Cop chair – it will be formally passed to Egypt next week – not to show up looked like both an error and a snub.

Among the on-record critics was Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president, whose role was downgraded by Sunak to no longer being a cabinet post, while a number of green-minded Conservative MPs were worried it showed a lack of seriousness on the issue from the prime minister.

With the U-turn done, Sunak faces two key challenges in Egypt during his visit.

The first might seem daunting but is likely to be manageable for a usually fluent and well-prepared politician: both taking his bow on the world stage, and doing so amid the semi-organised chaos of a Cop summit, where delegates and the media mingle with presidents, prime ministers and assorted other passing luminaries.

No 10 is expected to organise at least some formal bilateral meetings for Sunak, which could be good preparation for the G20 summit in Bali later in November, where Russia will be among the attendees.

Arguably the trickier task will be for him to begin setting out what exactly he stands for on climate change and green issues, something both of increasing importance for UK voters and one which Sunak has repeatedly said is the only policy area his young daughters show a real interest in.

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Sunak publicly professes his devotion to the cause of net zero by 2050, but appears often hamstrung by internal policy dramas, hence his summer leadership campaign pledge to block all new onshore wind schemes and his continuation of the Tory aversion to insulating homes.

He did reverse Liz Truss’s decision to restart fracking in England, but again this appeared motivated mainly by the anguish this caused many of his MPs, and he remains committed so far to new North Sea exploration.

So when it comes to the climate emergency, who is the real Rishi Sunak? We might learn some clues in Egypt – but most likely only a few.

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