Rishi Sunak has been accused of hypocrisy on the international stage after pushing for a phase-out of fossil fuels at the UN Cop28 climate summit in Dubai – weeks after backing more oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.
The prime minister’s lack of “consistency” over climate policy was ridiculed by several senior Conservatives, as well as the former US vice president Al Gore, while members of other international delegations said the UK’s incoherent approach meant it was no longer a global leader on climate issues.
More than 150 world leaders are gathered in Dubai for Cop28 this weekend. One of the most contentious issues is a resolution backing the phasing out of fossil fuels. Proponents say a global commitment to end their use is essential to put the world on track to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Oil-producing countries stymied attempts to introduce such a commitment at last year’s meeting. But the European Union, along with more than 100 countries, including the US, the UK and many developing nations, are now backing a strong commitment to phase out fossil fuels at this year’s summit. The host country, the United Arab Emirates, a major oil producer, has signalled that the final agreement must address fossil fuels in some way.
But the UK’s support for such a declaration has only highlighted the glaring lack of consistency with its domestic policy. Only last month, Sunak dismayed environmentalists when he announced legislation in the king’s speech for a new annual system of oil and gas licensing in the North Sea. This followed a scaling back of other green commitments including delays to a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and the phasing out of gas boilers.
Gore, speaking in an interview with the Observer at Cop28 said: “I am not impressed with prime minister Sunak’s climate policies. I think they’re terrible. They’re very disappointing.”
The UK, he said, normally “punched above its weight” in international affairs. “When its policies are supporting the flourishing of humanity and solving the climate crisis, it can have a very big impact for the good. When it is backsliding, it tends to sometimes give permission to other nations to backslide more than they might otherwise do,” he said.
“It does hurt the efforts here at Cop28 to have a UK prime minister adopting policies that can seem to only benefit the fossil fuel industry.”
International leaders noted that Sunak spent less time at this Cop meeting than the opposition leader, Keir Starmer. Several senior Tories also expressed disquiet. Lord Deben, a former cabinet minister who chaired the climate change committee for many years, said: “It’s clearly not credible to ask others to phase out fossil fuels when the UK has given permission for a new coalmine – from which 85% of the production will be exported – and intends to max out production of oil from the North Sea.
“The oil decision means that the UK no longer leads the world on climate; it undermines confidence in our commitment to net zero, and it makes it much harder to get the foreign investment we need. The decision to grant oil licences is economic nonsense.”
Lord Goldsmith, a former environment minister, told the Observer: “The PM’s approach to the environment is an incoherent mess. The UK has gone from being a world leader to being seen by our friends and allies as an unreliable nuisance.”
A senior ally of Boris Johnson remarked that “making progress on this hugely important agenda is all about consistency. It is of critical importance that the UK remains a world leader in this effort.”
Sir Alok Sharma, a former Cop president and ex-cabinet minister, said he welcomed the UK’s international move but added: “Now it is important to have domestic policies which are consistent with our international stance.”
Representatives of several countries also told the Observer they were disappointed at the UK’s stance. Teresa Ribera, Spain’s environment minister, said it was “good to see the leaders of each country stating and reassuring and investing his or her own political capital and making things easier”. Asked whether she thought Sunak had done this, she said: “I don’t.”
At Cop28, Sunak insisted that the UK was “leading the charge”. “We’re absolutely committed to our net zero targets,” he told reporters. “We’ve already decarbonised faster than any other major economy. Our emissions are down 48% since 1990.”
He added: “We’re also one of the largest climate donors, because we want to help those suffering the impacts of climate change.”
Labour sources accompanying Starmer and Ed Miliband found other international delegations bemoaning the UK government’s approach. Miliband, the shadow secretary of state for net zero, said Sunak was taking “double speak” to new levels, “telling other countries to phase out fossil fuels” while “seeking to extract every last drop at home”.
Jamie Peters, head of climate at Friends of the Earth, said: “With the world watching at Cop28, these contradictory messages are further undermining business confidence and the UK’s international climate credibility.”
Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, which campaigns against the use of fossil fuels, said: “This confirms that Rishi Sunak understands the desperate need to phase out fossil fuels to address the climate crisis, but that he lacks the courage to stand up to the oil and gas industry at home.
“The biggest capitulation came in September when he gave in to the Norwegian oil giant Equinor and sanctioned the enormous Rosebank oil field off the Shetland coast, not just adding fuel to the climate fire but subsidising the project, which is mainly oil for export, to the tune of billions. The UK government can no longer have it both ways.”