Rishi Sunak yesterday told world leaders the UK was 'totally committed to net zero', but speaking to the press the focus was on scrapping heat pump rules and China's rising emissions
Something weird happened during Rishi Sunak's whistlestop trip to COP28 yesterday, and I'm not talking about the pattern on King Charles' tie.
Yesterday evening, as the Prime Minister was already rushing back to his private jet, Number 10 published a transcript of the 'PM speech at COP28 climate summit'. Expect it wasn't the speech that Sunak gave to the main plenary at COP28. Indeed, if Sunak had delivered the speech to a room of world leaders gathered for a critical climate summit it would have caused uproar.
The speech transcript on the Number 10 website was a short address that Sunak gave at the COP28 Climate Summit, but it was not the speech he gave to the COP28 Climate Summit. That was the 'PM's National Statement at COP28', the transcript of which was published later in the day. The initial speech was barely a speech at all, but a set of prepared comments Sunak gave at the start of a private event. We know it was private, because only lobby journalists who had flown with the Prime Minister were allowed to attend. Veteran environmental correspondents, such as the former BBC journalist Roger Harrabin, were 'kicked out'. Your correspondent did not make it past the door.
The 'speech' delivered to journalists had one overarching message. The UK was doing brilliantly at cutting emissions and everyone else was, frankly, letting the side down.
"I'm calling on major emitters to dramatically accelerate delivery on what they've already promised," Sunak said. "Everyone can do more. And let's be very clear - the UK is leading the charge."
He even pointed fingers directly at others, naming China in particular. "We've already decarbonised faster than any other major economy," he said. "Our emissions are down 48 per cent since 1990. Compared to limited cuts from others. And a 300 per cent increase from China."
And the UK is more generous than most, too. "We're also one of the largest climate donors, because we want to help those suffering the impacts of climate change," Sunak continued, as he confirmed a further £1.6bn of funding. "Again the UK is leading by example… and we need others to step up," he added.
And what will the UK do next to build on this world-leading excellence in the face of the biggest long term threat facing the world? The answer provided to the audience of select journalists was that the government will now take a more "pragmatic" approach to achieving net zero targets focused on scrapping heat pump policies and energy efficiency rules.
"Climate politics is close to breaking point," Sunak declared. "The British people care about the environment. They know that the costs of inaction are intolerable. But they also know that we have choices about how we act. So yes we'll meet our targets, but we'll do it in a more pragmatic way, which doesn't burden working people."
He went into some specifics, repeating the highly contested claim that the climate policies the government scrapped in the autumn would have imposed huge additional costs on families. "We've scrapped plans on heat pumps and energy efficiency, which would have cost families thousands of pounds," he said. "We'll help people to improve energy efficiency and cut bills - but we won't force them to."
It was much the same tetchy performance that Sunak has delivered repeatedly since the government's controversial decision to water down a number of decarbonisation policies, and, more damagingly for investor confidence, characterise the net zero transition as a cost.
But when Sunak stood up in the main plenary hall just moments later to deliver his official statement to the Summit, his message to assorted dignitaries was tonally very different even if some of the same themes were present.
He repeated the line that climate politics was "close to breaking point", but this time he argued it was "because the gap between pledges and delivery is undermining credibility". He did reference the government's commitment to a "pragmatic new approach" to decarbonisation that did not put "more pressure on working people". But instead of bragging about scrapping heat pump policies - rarely a good look at a climate summit - he argued the new approach was based on "ramping up renewables and embracing the opportunity of technology and green industry, because we've shown you can cut emissions while growing the economy and creating green jobs".
Does any of this matter? Prime Ministers delivering a different message to a domestic audience compared to their set piece speeches on the international stage is a tactic as old as geopolitics itself. What difference does it make if the Prime Minister is more emollient when addressing world leaders on the topic than he is when talking to the press?
I'd argue it is hardly the biggest scandal, but it is revelatory and not a little concerning.
The problem for Number 10 is other governments can read. They can see and hear that Sunak's support for rapid decarbonisation is not as full throated as it once was, even as he insists net zero targets will somehow be met (although it is worth noting once again that the government will not provide the Climate Change Committee with the modelling and assumptions on the impact of recent policy changes). The UK is still a major player in the clean energy transition and can still attract significant clean tech investment - witness yesterday's major offshore wind deal with the UAE - but in an increasingly competitive environment the vibes really matter. Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was this week making social media videos about the brilliance of heat pumps, Sunak is proudly weakening heat pump policies.
Most worryingly, at a Summit where the biggest debate is around how best to wind down fossil fuel production, governments that want to keep drilling can see the UK is calling for a phasing out of unabated fossil fuels while approving yet more oil and gas projects and making only glacial progress on delivering carbon capture capacity.
Moreover, when one of the overarching themes of COP28 is the accelerating shift in the axis of global power towards the large emerging economies, it is diplomatically clumsy to demand more of others while bragging about slowing down decarbonisation efforts at home. Just as it is rarely wise to point fingers about who holds responsibility for the climate crisis without referencing historic emissions, differing development requirements, and the vexed topic of imported emissions.
However, the biggest concern for green businesses and campaigners is that Sunak's speech to journalists is much closer to what he thinks than his address to world leaders. And neither speech had a fraction of the urgency contained in King Charles' attempt earlier in the day to warn the world of the true scale of current crisis and map out a credible path for averting disaster.
In the press conference following his speech, Sunak repeatedly echoed climate sceptic talking points, reiterating how the UK is only responsible for one per cent emissions and voicing concerns about the cost of clean technologies. These are legitimate points, but when he attempted to pivot to talk about the opportunities offered by clean tech exports and innovation, Sunak was largely unconvincing. He made no reference to the costs of inaction in the face of the climate crisis, the responsibility industrialised nations have for historic emissions, nor the intense global competition to attract investment in the industries that will dominate the 21st century.
And like too many other leaders at this Summit he failed to explain how his stated commitment to meeting the 1.5C goal alive would actually manifest itself. How does he intend to drastically accelerate global decarbonisation efforts? How does he plan to enhance climate resilience at home and abroad? How does he expect to convince others to phase out fossil fuels when approving domestic drilling projects? Does he think the UK can build a fully decarbonised energy system in a few decades given current economic headwinds and planning constraints? Does he really think the 1.5C goal can be met? What does he think will happen if it is not?
Now, answering those questions would have been a good subject for a speech.