There could be no worse advertisement for environmentalism than COP27 - Bernard Ingham

What’s up with our Prime Ministers? They seem to be in a frightful rush to make mistakes. After Liz Truss’s headlong dive into trouble, you might have thought Rishi Sunak would be more careful. Instead, he has made two bloomers in his first week.

He was entirely justified in deciding not to go to this week’s UN environmental swan - COP27 – in Egypt, even when he knew those loose cannons – Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron – would be there. He has enough work at home, especially with a budget coming up next week. But he made the mistake of closing his options and telling everybody he was staying at home. Instead, he could reasonably have said that everything depended on progress on handling the domestic agenda.

Then, within a few days, he said he was going to Sharm-el-Sheikh. The result is that ‘Rishi is for turning’ and there is speculation about what else he could be persuaded to ditch – or adopt. Not a healthy start.

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But there is always a silver lining to adversity. Mr Sunak can redeem himself in Egypt. As he believes in levelling with the public, he could usefully send Greta Thunberg, Sweden’s teenage environmental doomster, packing instead of ludicrously paying homage like so many of the great and the good to the greenest of green girls.

Rishi Sunak pictured delivering a speech at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow last year. PIC: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty ImagesRishi Sunak pictured delivering a speech at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow last year. PIC: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images
Rishi Sunak pictured delivering a speech at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow last year. PIC: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

It will be all the more important that he does so when his predecessor, Boris Johnson, will be there kidding himself in his boosterish way that zero-carbon by 2050 is within grasp - an entirely uncosted objective, running to £billions we don’t have. It really is time a leader with pretensions to statesmanship took COP by the scruff of the neck and shook some common sense into it.

As you know, I recognise the need to clean up the planet and its atmosphere for reasons of health, climate and heritage. We cannot go on polluting it without damaging our own interests. But we have to recognise that we shall never succeed if we try to do so regardless of the consequences. Blind environmentalism is as dangerous as blind squandering of the world’s resources.

In fact, there could be no worse advertisement for environmentalism than COPs which attract up to 30,000 politicians, officials and campaigners generating clouds of carbon dioxide they are pledging to banish from the face of the earth. COPs have become an exercise in utter hypocrisy and the wonder is that the UN can’t see it. But as for now we are stuck with them.

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Enter, I hope against the evidence, Mr Sunak with words of wisdom. The omens are not good because he has reinstated the ban on fracking that Liz Truss conditionally lifted, though he may have felt that the Tory Party is in a febrile state enough without having the shires rising up against ‘wrecking the countryside’. His needle is stuck in Boris mode – ever more unreliable renewables.

As if the countryside - and seascapes - have not been wrecked enough already by those entirely unreliable global warming remedies called wind and solar power. Environmental policy is riddled with contradictions of which the proposed ban on burning wood in stoves while subsidising the import of wood chips to generate electricity at Drax in Yorkshire is the most blatant.

So what we need in Egypt this week is a gutsy Mr Sunak advocating a practical approach to climate change in the dangerously straitened economic circumstances in which the world finds itself. He should first acknowledge that, unlike Britain and Europe up to now, no government is going to sacrifice its economic interests on the altar of global warming. Europe’s foolishness in putting its economies at the mercy of the seriously demented Vladimir Putin demonstrates the dangerous implications of unthinking greenery.

What we need is not high-sounding rhetoric but costed measures that all can embrace that will steadily reduce carbon pollution but blind, bull-at-a-gate environmentalism has not worked – as the UN tacitly admits. This implies a much harder-worked and intellectually taxing COP than we usually get. But if the UN and its constituent nations are serious about saving the planet, as they put it, they would do well to show it – NOW.

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We have now had 27 of these blessed jamborees in all the best places with precious little to show for it globally. The irony is that the UK, responsible for less than two per cent of global pollution, has done as much as anyone to clean up its skies. The time has come for Mr Sunak to lead the world more quickly and surely to climate safety.