Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks with patient Catherine Poole during his visit to Croydon University Hospital in south London on October 28, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

London: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak demoted two climate ministers and decided not to attend the annual United Nations climate change summit beginning November 6, raising questions about his commitment to fight global warming.

Sunak, whose predecessor Liz Truss had planned to go to the so-called COP27 UN meeting in Egypt, won’t attend in order to focus “on depressing domestic challenges we have with the economy,” he said Friday. He and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are set to unveil an economic plan on November 17, which could entail tax rises and spending cuts totalling as much as £50 billion ($58 billion).

King Charles III, who was advised not to attend the summit by Truss’s government, will also opt out despite having given a speech at COP26 last year. The advice to the monarch, an outspoken advocate for tackling climate change, has not changed, Sunak’s spokeswoman, Camilla Marshall, told reporters on Friday.

Questions have been asked in the past about Sunak’s commitment to tackling climate change, not least when he cut taxes on fuel and flying just days before the UK hosted last year’s UN summit in Glasgow. Adding to the sense that he’s downgrading the importance of climate in the government agenda, the premier also decided this week that COP26 President Alok Sharma and Climate Change Minister Graham Stuart will no longer attend Cabinet meetings. Both remain in post and Sharma and Environment Secretary Therese Coffey will attend the summit.

“It’s important to me that, as prime minister, we leave behind an environment that is better for our children and grandchildren,” Sunak said in a pooled broadcast clip Friday. “I’m very passionate about that.”

‘Failure of Leadership’

It’s not unusual for a head of government to miss the UN summit. Though Truss had planned to attend COP, world leaders tend only to attend the UN conference every few years when bigger agreements are being negotiated. Last year’s gathering in Glasgow was the biggest since one in Paris in 2015 that produced a global agreement to limit temperature rises. Truss’s predecessor, Boris Johnson attended the Glasgow meeting, while then Prime Minister David Cameron went to the French capital.

Sunak poses for a selfie with patient Sreeja Gopalan as he visits Croydon University hospital. Image Credit: AP

Sunak’s approach to climate issues has been mixed. He restored a ban on fracking this week, but told Conservative Party members over his summer leadership campaign that he’ll halt efforts to bring back onshore wind. His new Energy Secretary, Grant Shapps, previously called onshore wind turbines an “eyesore.” Sunak also privately lobbied to impose a green levy on petrol and diesel when he was Chancellor, but it was rejected by then-leader Johnson.

The opposition Labour Party’s spokesman on climate, Ed Miliband, called Sunak’s failure to attend COP27 a “massive failure of leadership,” while Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, said in a statement that Sunak’s non-attendance suggests he “neither takes the climate crisis seriously enough, nor recognizes the opportunities for Britain to take a leadership role in helping to solve it.”

Sunak, Macron agree greater cooperation on Channel migrants

Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, in their first call since Sunak took office agreed on greater cooperation to prevent migrant Channel crossings, Downing Street said.

A spokesperson said the leaders “committed to deepening our partnership to deter deadly journeys across the Channel that benefit organised criminals”.

Sunak stressed the “importance for both nations to make the Channel route completely unviable for people traffickers”.

This year, a record number of 37,570 people have crossed the Channel to England in small boats.

The issue has caused a major political headache for the UK government, which promised tighter border controls after leaving the European Union.

Tensions have risen between London and Paris, with the UK government accusing France of not doing enough to stop the crossings.

The Times reported on Friday, citing government sources, that Sunak wants to tighten up terms of a draft deal with France on cross-Channel cooperation and make it “more ambitious”.

Sunak wants the draft deal with France to include a minimum number of French officers patrolling beaches, the report said.

It said the prime minister also wants new internal targets for the UK interior ministry to process 80 per cent of asylum claims within six months, to reduce the current backlog.

Sunak’s interior minister, Suella Braverman, supports a government plan to send migrants illegally crossing the Channel to Rwanda.

Macron released a statement on his discussion with Sunak in which the French president said he was ready to “work closely” with Sunak to deepen bilateral relations, particularly on defence and energy.

The men are set to hold a joint summit next year.