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Gulf could take on the UK’s climate change leadership

The UK, on arguably the single biggest issue facing the planet, has quit while in the lead

UK climate change protestors at Cop26 in Glasgow Reuters
Activists from Extinction Rebellion warned they were watching at the Cop26 event, and with Rishi Sunak's rollback of green goals, the world will be, too

A rare bright point in the UK’s recent rocky trajectory had been in the field of climate change.

As host of the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow two years ago, the Conservative government led by Boris Johnson committed considerable energy to reinforcing the UK’s green credentials and pushing the global community into doing more on climate.  

With Cop28 coming up at the end of November in the UAE, that legacy is in sharp focus with climate change even more of a global threat than ever. If in doubt, examine the evidence of events this summer.

Think of all the major fires, the extreme heat, typhoons and most recently Storm Daniel and the horrors of the Derna flooding in Libya. Predictions are that 2023 will be the hottest year in human history. 

Many assumed that this would be the moment for top-tier economies to toughen up and harden global resolve to address carbon emissions, not water them down.

Yet, on September 20 the prime minister Rishi Sunak made dramatic announcements rolling back some of his government’s commitments on climate change and net zero. Notably this included delaying the ban on sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 – a pledge made by Johnson – to 2035. 

Sunak is still committed to the net zero target by 2050. Yet these changes question the trajectory of how the UK will get there if the tough commitments are ditched for fear of voters’ being upset at increased costs. The reality is that climate change equals increased costs, and there is no pain-free solution to the issue. 

The 2024 election campaign in the UK is in full swing and in this electoral contest, climate change may not be a vote winner for the Conservatives.

Sunak’s move is all about making a pitch to retain the motorists’ vote and the rural constituencies where the Conservatives fare well. 

A global picture

But how will the international community view this, not least with Cop28 on the horizon? How will states seriously considering how to cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030 view this backward step? 

Once again Britain may be accused of saying one thing doing another, and of not sticking to its commitments. Will it raise questions about its seriousness on the world stage? 

Contrast this with some of the changes for example going on in the Gulf. 

The UAE will be hosting Cop28. The GCC states are, of course, major hydrocarbon producers for whom cutting back on carbon emissions has historically been problematic. Weaning the world off carbon might threaten their flourishing economies.

Yet despite that, increasingly these states are changing their approach. Exciting new advances in renewables such as solar power are on the cards.

Over the next three decades, the UAE promises to invest $165 billion in clean and renewable energy initiatives. Saudi Arabia is aiming to be producing half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Tough challenges for these states lie ahead but they are at least heading in the right direction and they are investing in the future. 

The UK, on arguably the single biggest issue facing the planet, has quit while in the lead and backed off. Other states must not see this as an excuse to retreat from their commitments but view this as an opportunity to take up the baton and be world leaders themselves.

They can challenge the UK and other major powers, to live up to their responsibilities given that historically they have been the major generators of carbon emissions. 

Sunak tried to frame this as him making tough long-term decisions. Pulling away from net-zero commitments is anything but. It is a major cop out.

Chris Doyle is director of the Council of Arab British Understanding

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