Is Rishi Sunak attending COP27? Will UK prime minister be at 2022 climate conference, U-turn rumours explained

The UK Prime Minister could reverse his decision to not attend the climate summit in Egypt, despite initially saying he needs to focus on the “depressing challenges” faced by the country’s economy.

Rishi Sunak is under pressure to U-turn on his decision to not attend the COP27 climate conference in Egypt after widespread criticism.

The Prime Minister announced last Friday (28 October) that he would not be attending the United Nations event in part due to preparations for the UK’s Autumn Budget, which has been pushed back to 17 November. COP27 takes place from 6 to 18 November - finishing the day after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is due to set out his tax and spending plans for the country.

A spokesperson for Number 10 said: “The Prime Minister is not expected to attend COP27 and this is due to other pressing domestic commitments including preparations for the Autumn Budget. The UK will be fully represented by other senior ministers as well as COP President Alok Sharma.”

She added that Sunak remains “absolutely committed” to supporting COP27, while the Prime Minister stressed during a visit to a hospital in south London that it was “important” to him to “leave behind an environment that is better for our children and grandchildren”, but that is is “right” for him to focus on the “depressing domestic challenges we have with the economy.

Rishi Sunak is under mounting pressure to attend the COP27 climate conference in Egypt. Credit: Getty Images

However, reports have since emerged that Sunak may reverse his decision, with environment minister Mark Spencer saying the Prime Minister will go “if his diary allows”. Some have suggested that the news that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to be present may have also placed pressure on Sunak. But Spencer rejected this, arguing that Johnson’s possible attendance is instead “a demonstration of how seriously the Conservative Party and the Conservative Government takes these things.”

Sunak received significant criticism following his initial announcement, with many arguing that the decision to skip the global signalled a downgrading of climate change as a government priority. Labour’s climate change secretary Ed Milliband told Sky News that it was “a big mistake” and representative of “abdicating leadership”, while Green MP Caroline Lucas said the “shameful” decision “made a mockery of any government claims on continued leadership”.

The Prime Minister also faced criticism from his own party. COP President Alok Sharma said the news was “disappointing”, while former Tory Chancellor George Osborne asked why Sunak would “trash” the party’s record on the environment. One of the few to defend the Prime Minister was new Environment Secretary Therese Coffey, who argued Sunak will “show global leadership” rather than “just [going to] a gathering of people in Egypt.” In 2021, Sunak attended COP6 in Glasgow, Scotland, when he was the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Amongst those planning to attend include world leaders such as US President Joe Biden and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Sunak’s ousted predecessor Liz Truss was also planning on attending.

King Charles, who was then Prince of Wales, hosts a Commonwealth Leaders’ Reception with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson at COP26. Credit: Getty Images

King Charles III, who is a longstanding champion of environmental issues, will not attend after Buckingham Palace sought advice from Truss and agreed he would not go in person. The advice has not changed under the new Prime Minister.

Greta Thunberg, teenage climate activist, said she will not be at the summit because it is a “scam”, telling an event in London: "It’s very symbolic that it’s being held in a tourist paradise in a country that violates many basic human rights.” She also added however that “many world leaders are too busy to go there because they have their own problems - with that mindset we’re not going to be able to solve many of the problems that we face."

The climate conference in Egypt is set to focus on areas such as decarbonisation and reducing emissions, helping countries prepare for and deal with climate change, agriculture innovation and clean technologies, biodiversity, and energy transition.