The prime minister has no choice – his commitment to the green economy will be judged by his attendance at the Earth Summit
If you were to ask most people whether they would like an all-expenses-paid trip to Rio de Janeiro, expressly designed to demonstrate that they were a nice guy or gal who cared about the planet, it would probably not take them too long to start packing their sunglasses. Sadly, life is not that simple when you are prime minister.
The debate over whether or not David Cameron should attend the Rio Earth +20 Summit continues to rumble on, presenting a potential political land mine for Number 10 that is only going to become more prominent as we get closer the global conference's kick-off on 20 June.
Speaking at a press briefing earlier this week on the coalition's new climate impact report, environment secretary Caroline Spelman responded to a direct question on the prime minister's possible attendance of the most high-profile environmental meeting in two decades by insisting no decision had yet been made on whether her boss would book a flight to Brazil.
Which begs the question – why is it taking so long to make a decision? What is the prime minister worried about?
To re-cap, it emerged last year that Cameron would not be attending the Rio Earth Summit on the rather dubious grounds that the original date of 4-6 June clashed with the Queen's Jubilee celebrations (big picture, Dave – I'm sure she wouldn't miss you too much and they'll be plenty of photos).
This prompted a small outcry from green campaigners and even led to a rethink from the summit's Brazilian hosts, who rescheduled the meeting for later in the month, primarily so Commonwealth heads of state would not have to make a tricky decision on whether they cared more about the Queen's knees-up or the future habitability of the planet.
However, with diary clash resolved, Number 10 still refused to confirm whether Cameron would attend, and sources hinted it was unlikely he would make the trip. Even a highly critical report from the Environmental Audit Committee, which recommended the prime minister "lead by example" and confirm his attendance, failed to secure the RSVP green campaigners and the summit's hosts have been waiting for.
All of which brings up to this week and Spelman's confirmation that a final decision is still yet to be made.
Does Cameron's attendance matter?
At a technical level, probably not. Sources in Defra tell me preparations for the summit are going well with a particular focus on brokering some tangible new agreements on areas such as forest protection and the marine environment. Relations between the UK and the summit's Brazilian hosts are said to be good and Spelman is reportedly working hard to ensure the summit builds on the success enjoyed at the Nagoya Summit on biodiversity last year. Cameron's presence or otherwise is unlikely to make much of an impact on the technical negotiations that will take place at the summit.
But when it comes to political symbolism, snubbing the summit would matter, at both a domestic and international level.
The Rio Earth Summit +20 will be the most important environmental summit, certainly since the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, and arguably since the first Rio Summit 20 years ago. President Obama is unlikely to be there as it is an election year and his Republican opponents regard anything to do with the health of the planet as a Commie plot, but plenty of other world leaders and business titans will be there, particularly those from the increasingly influential emerging economies and the global south.
Judging by the likely guest list alone, it would be inappropriate for the UK prime minister not to attend, especially when the UK has serious ambitions to become a world leader in the development of more sustainable technologies and business models. Cameron should be there for the trade opportunities alone.
On a domestic level, meanwhile, it is no secret tensions are running pretty high between the green movement and the coalition. The government maintains it is not getting the credit it deserves for the pioneering green policies it has put in place. Green critics counter that any positive steps are undermined by carbon-intensive policies as well as the thinly veiled hostility to environmental issues in the rhetoric of the chancellor and the failure of the prime minister to talk about his green ambitions in public. Both sides agree that, in the words of climate minister Greg Barker, the government needs to put its "mouth where its money is" and make more of a noise about its green agenda.
However, failing to attend the Rio Earth Summit would give the green movement another high-profile stick with which to beat the coalition, further undermining the positive work that is being done to attract green investors to the UK.
Could Cameron's attendance make a difference? Well, if the anti-environmental rhetoric in which George Osborne has been indulging in recent months has damaged green investor confidence (and the consensus is that it absolutely has), the opposite is also true. Some unashamedly pro-environmental rhetoric in a high-profile forum from the most powerful person in the country would send a clear signal that the UK is open to green business. It might be a bit shallow, but words and symbolism matter, often as much as the policies that back them up.
Forty-eight hours in Rio may not give Cameron time to make it to the pool, but it could be long enough for him to promote the UK's green economy, ink a couple of important clean-tech trade deals and international commitments, and help ensure the media will pay attention to what will be a hugely important summit.
Moreover, the absence of clearly defined goals for the summit means that, unlike in Copenhagen and other UN climate summits, there is little danger of the prime minister being associated with a conference that is deemed to have failed.
Cameron should go to the summit and confirm his attendance as soon as possible in order to crank up pressure on other world leaders to follow suit. And if he really feels the combination of the Queen's Jubilee, the Olympics and Brits' tendency to riot on summer evenings means he can't leave the country, Nick Clegg should do his duty as a deputy prime minister and attend in the prime minister's place. Either way, someone needs to join Caroline Spelman in packing the sunglasses.
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