Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
For someone who appeared dead set against attending the COP27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Rishi Sunak certainly turned up – and then some.
Taking to the stage, he recommitted the UK to spending £11.6bn on international climate finance.
As part of this, he tripled Britain’s funding on climate adaptation to £1.5 billion by 2025. Headline announcements included £90m on conservation in the Congo Basin, £65m for the Nature, People and Climate Investment Fund, which supports indigenous and local forest communities, and £65.5m for the Clean Energy Innovation Facility, which goes towards green technology and clean energy innovations in developing countries.
In the same speech, he spoke of the “difficult decisions” he’s preparing to take at home to ensure confidence and economic stability in Britain. However, when it comes to spending large sums we don’t have on green projects abroad, it seems he is more than able to swerve such difficult decisions.
Of course, it may well be that pumping tens of millions into the Congo Basin is money better spent than previous aid programmes – not least the aid sent to India, a country that has both its own space programme and its own overseas aid scheme.
But when the Prime Minister is preparing to greenlight cuts to departmental budgets at home, and press ahead with several stealth taxes to close the fiscal hole he helped create, many will quite reasonably ask whether he, and his fellow political elites, have got their priorities right.
Now, as Britain stares down a winter energy crisis, this Government seems determined to continue with the anti-growth policies which left us so vulnerable to external shocks, even when it comes to pioneering greener energy.
Sunak seems unwilling to tear down legal barriers to building more onshore wind farms and our first attempt to expand our nuclear capacity, the new reactor at Sizewell C, seems destined to be bogged down in legal and regulatory challenges for years to come. And, of course, one of his first moves in the job was to reinstate the moratorium on onshore fracking.
Unsurprisingly, Nicola Sturgeon has fully embraced the narrative that Britain has a responsibility to pay ‘loss and damage’ to developing countries, pledging £5 million in climate change reparations to developing nations.
Sunak must resist giving any credence to the idea that the British people owe climate reparations. It’s one thing to reallocate more of our foreign aid budget to climate-related causes, but telling hard-pressed Brits that they should feel guilty or responsible for historic carbon emissions is quite another, particularly when new figures show China has spewed out more pollution in eight years than the UK has in the 220 years since the Industrial Revolution.
That said, neither China nor Britain are guilty of a crime. Britain ought to be celebrated for pioneering the industrial revolution, the outcome of which has been an unprecedented reduction in poverty, both in Britain and across the globe. Indeed, it provided a blueprint for other nations to climb out of poverty, while free trade has helped to spread the economic benefits of industrialisation throughout the world.
Just as industrialisation brought millions out of absolute poverty, so too will it be technological innovation and free exchange that both mitigates and allows us to adapt to a changing climate, despite what Greta Thunberg and her followers may claim.
Against this backdrop, the imminent new gas deal with the United States shows once again how counterproductive climate policy can be when it’s decoupled from realism. This ‘energy security partnership’ will see the UK import billions of cubic metres of liquefied natural gas to Britain – at both significant expense and great environmental cost.
We know that imported gas – cooled, then shipped in vast tankers – has a higher carbon footprint than gas drilled at home. But our political elite have decided that it is more politically expedient to give in to green campaigners, Tory backbenchers and the opposition on domestic fracking than to make the strong economic – and environmental – argument for increasing supply at home.
Some have argued that fracking in England is uneconomic, but should that not be a decision for energy producers and local communities rather than puritanical eco-activists?
The Government faces the very same conundrum when it comes to the decision on whether to approve or deny planning permission for a new coal mine in Cumbria for steel manufacturing, a decision that has been pushed back several times already.
It is no surprise that green groups have been up in arms over the very thought that Britain could give the green light to a new coal mine, but again it would be far less environmentally damaging to serve British steelmakers with local coal than to import it from further afield, with all the carbon emissions entailed in its transportation.
Fundamentally, Sunak’s appearance at COP27 underscores the counterproductive approach to climate policy taken by successive governments, which has prioritised grandstanding on the global stage over our own energy security.
Like his predecessors, the Prime Minister has shown up at the conference and committed to pumping British taxpayers’ money overseas while people at home suffer through an energy crisis and looming recession.
We all agree that we need to pollute less, but British emissions have shrunk over the past 30 years faster than nearly any other country on Earth. This has been achieved at a clear, but moderate, cost.
What is now happening is the takeover of this agenda by poorly-informed, extremist activism. Gas, nuclear, and even some coal will have to play a part in our energy mix in years to come. It is important that reaching our climate goals does not sacrifice the livelihoods and incomes of ordinary people in this country for the sake of grandstanding politicians.
If Sunak wants a message to give to his fellow politicians then this, rather than nonsense about reparations, should be it.