Words v Deeds: Rishi Sunak at the Egypt Climate Summit

November 9, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam GB’s Danny Sriskandarajah  assesses words v deeds in Rishi Sunak’s performance on the climate crisis

Danny Sriskandarajah, Chief Executive (CEO), Oxfam GB.

After initially dithering on whether to attend the COP27 climate summit this week, Prime Minister Sunak seems to have packed his Climate Superhero costume for his trip to Sharm-El-Sheikh. His speech was not short of promises – to turn the UK into a ‘clean energy superpower’, language about ‘a global mission for new jobs and clean growth’ and a renewed commitment to provide millions of pounds worth of funding for climate adaptation. But, when it came to the defining issue of this COP, the Prime Minister’s silence on loss and damage was deafening.  

Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, who this week announced £5m of Scottish funding to tackle loss and damage caused by climate change in developing countries, Sunak chose not to commit. Perhaps the Prime Minister saw this as someone else’s problem or not worth spending UK taxpayer funds on. Perhaps he was deterred by the blistering criticism in some sections of the UK press – “No 10 could be forced to pay out aid cash to countries hit by global warming disasters” shouted one headline yesterday – and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had already poured cold water on the idea of climate reparations a few hours ahead of Sunak’s speech. 

Not only was Sunak’s silence on loss and damage a missed opportunity for Britain to show moral leadership on climate justice, but it showed a misunderstanding of the politics and economics of climate change. Addressing loss and damage isn’t about putting principles ahead of prosperity, or prioritising the global ahead of the national. It is firmly in the UK’s national interest and should be at the top of Sunak’s priority list.  

The UK’s current financial difficulties will be dwarfed by the devastating effects of continued climate inaction. Forecasts for losses to global GDP from unchecked climate change vary from 12% to 37% or even higher by 2100.  For the UK, that figure is estimated at least 7.4% of GDP by 2100. If Sunak chooses not to prioritise reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning the UK to a low-carbon economy, his strategy will be one of extreme economic risk.  

And to suggest that money for loss and damages will inevitably come out of the pocket of British taxpayers is disingenuous. A windfall tax on the massive profits of fossil fuel companies is an obvious source of finance waiting to be tapped, as is progressive taxation of the billionaire investors at the top of the corporate pyramid who shoulder huge responsibility for driving climate breakdown.   

When Antonio Guterres talks about ‘being on a highway to climate hell’, he isn’t raising the spectre of something that will affect people in other parts of the world at some point in the future. He’s talking about the here and now. The funding needs for UN humanitarian appeals linked to extreme weather are eight times higher than they were 20 years ago. The number of people going hungry in climate hotspots has more than doubled in the last six years. Today, on the frontline of a climate crisis they did not cause, and reeling from the effects of conflict, a person in East Africa is dying from hunger every 36 seconds

Renewing commitments to boost climate adaptation funding to £1.5 billion by 2025, as Sunak did at COP, is a step in the right direction. But simultaneously presiding over plans to issue 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas extraction not only backtracks on existing climate commitments, but seems perverse. So too is it a retrograde step to oppose UK onshore wind developments and solar projects, while leaving open a decision on whether to approve a new coal mine in Cumbria.  

Given that the UK is, historically, among the world’s biggest emitters and its emissions are still well above what’s sustainable, the Prime Minister could have led the way among developed nations at COP in championing a global agreement for new, additional finance that addresses the loss and damage already being suffered by countries on the front line of the climate crisis. He could have taken the opportunity to call an end to all new fossil fuel projects in the UK and instead announced new investment in our own abundant renewables. Such a move, combined with steps to ensure a just transition for affected workers and communities, would have sent a strong signal to the world that fossil fuels are on their way out.  

 So far, the evidence suggests that if Sunak is to become a climate superhero, then we are definitely in the early stages of his origin story. But the current economic and energy crisis facing Britain should serve to spur the Prime Minister on. For, while the costs of mitigating climate change are undeniable, the price of inaction will be infinitely greater.  

November 9, 2022
Duncan Green