LONDON — COP28, meet the U.K.’s three amigos.
One is a king who has spent most of his adult life campaigning for bold action on global warming — but is now bound by ancient convention to stick to his government’s skeptical script.
The second is a prime minister who just scaled back Britain’s net zero ambitions and wants to “max out” fossil fuel production at home — and stands accused by former colleagues of being “uninterested” in environmental policies.
And the third? A former prime minister — now the U.K. foreign secretary — who once pledged to lead the “greenest government ever,” but then grew tired of what he called “the green crap” … and is already showing signs of overshadowing his new boss.
All three — King Charles III, Rishi Sunak, and David Cameron — are due to descend on the United Nations climate conference, COP28, which starts in Dubai next week, rounding off a year set to be the hottest ever recorded. (Sunak and the king are already confirmed to attend, while Cameron is due to do so in the coming days.)
The unlikely trio, each jostling for their place on the world stage, are symbolic of a wider identity crisis for the U.K. heading into the summit.
The country staked a claim as a world leader on climate when it hosted COP26 just two years ago. But it is now viewed with uncertainty by allies pushing for stronger action on global warming, following Sunak’s embrace of North Sea oil and gas and his retreat on some key domestic net zero targets.
“There is a lot of confusion about what the U.K. is going to do this year,” said one European diplomat, granted anonymity to give a candid assessment ahead of the summit.
“It raises the question, which team are they on? I think we’ll need to find out during COP.”
Green king, Blue Prime Minister
One of the key moments for the U.K. will come early in the conference, when Charles delivers an opening speech at the World Climate Action Summit of world leaders, the grand curtain raiser on a fortnight of talks.
Sunak is expected to fly in the same day to deliver his own speech later in the session.
At least Charles has been allowed to attend the summit this year. In 2022, then Prime Minister Liz Truss advised the king against travelling to Egypt for COP27.
But anyone looking for signs of friction between Sunak and the climate-conscious king will be unlikely to find them in the text of Charles’ address.
Speeches by the monarch are signed off by No. 10 Downing Street and this one will be no different, said one minister, granted anonymity to discuss interactions between the PM’s office and Buckingham Palace.
That’s not to say tensions don’t exist. Just don’t expect the king to overstep the constitutional ground rules, said Charles’ friend and biographer, the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby.
“I can only imagine that he must be intensely frustrated that the government has granted licenses in the North Sea,” Dimbleby told POLITICO. “Whatever the actual practical implications of the drilling in terms of combating climate change, it will not send a great message to the world from a nation that claims moral leadership on the issue.”
But Charles finds himself in “a unique position,” Dimbleby added.
“He is the only head of state who has a very long track record on insisting that climate change is a threat to the future of humanity … He speaks with great authority — but of course on terms from which the government will not dissent, because he has an overriding commitment, regardless of his own views, to abide by the constitutional obligations of the head of state in this country.”
Others see the speech as a major test for Charles.
“This is one of the most significant speeches he’ll make as king,” said Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert and lecturer in law at the Royal Holloway university.
Prescott noted the speech will be watched closely for clues as to how Charles maintains “political impartiality while pursuing the environmental issue — striking the right balance.”
“There will be some to-ing and fro-ing between Downing Street and the Palace,” he added. “But fundamentally he has to comply with any advice he gets.”
As is the convention, Downing Street declined to comment on any discussions with Buckingham Palace. The Palace did not respond to a request for comment.
Fossil fuel politics
The king is attending the summit at the invitation of its hosts, the United Arab Emirates — a sign of close ties between the British establishment and the Gulf monarchies presiding over some of the world’s biggest oil and gas-producing countries.
It’s a connection some view as a potential asset for British climate diplomacy.
“Trust between these royal families and institutions could provide the chance to have candid conversations” on issues such as fossil fuel reduction and the need to expand renewable energy supply, said Edward Davey, head of the U.K office of the World Resources Institute, where the king is patron.
“One could imagine those issues being discussed in a respectful way, in a way that perhaps other leaders couldn’t achieve.”
“I think it’s perfectly possible for the sovereign and the PM to both attend a COP and for them both to play a complementary role,” Davey added.
Others are much more skeptical. “[The king] has a lot of close friends in the Middle East who are massive producers of oil,” said Graham Smith, boss of the Republic campaign group, which wants to abolish the British monarchy.
“They can use him as a point of access to the British state because he has direct access to the government, and whatever he says to government is entirely secretive.”
Cameron, meanwhile, has his own close ties to the UAE and — before his return to government — took on a teaching post at New York University Abu Dhabi earlier this year.
The U.K.’s big three will be joined in Dubai by Energy Secretary — and Sunak ally — Claire Coutinho. But the head of the British delegation is a junior minister, Graham Stuart, who does not attend Cabinet.
While the country will be officially arguing — alongside the EU — for a “phase-out of unabated fossil fuels,” Stuart sparked confusion earlier this month when he suggested to MPs that he was not troubled by the distinction between a “phase-out” (a total end to production of fossil fuels, where carbon capture is not applied) and a “phase-down,” the softer language preferred by the summit’s president, UAE national oil company boss Sultan Al-Jaber.
Chris Skidmore, an MP and climate activist in Sunak’s Conservative party, and the author of a government-commissioned report on net zero policy, said Stuart was wrong if he thought the distinction was just “semantics.”
“The fate of the world is resting on a distinction between phase-out and phase-down. But the U.K. finds itself now [unable] to argue for phase-out because it’s joined the phase-down club.
“That in itself puts us in an entirely different strategic position to where we were.”
Climate brain drain
London’s climate diplomatic corps are still well-respected around the world, said the same European diplomat quoted above. Even with Sunak’s loosening of net zero policies, the U.K. is seen to be in the group of countries, alongside the EU, leading the push for strong action on cutting emissions.
And there is a chance Cameron’s appointment will see more effort going into the U.K.’s global reputation on climate, according to Skidmore.
“It was under his premiership that the U.K. played a leading role in helping to get the Paris Agreement [to limit global warming] signed through … It will be interesting to see if he comes to COP and wants to play on the opportunities for the U.K. to demonstrate its climate credentials,” he said.
But the team that pulled off a relatively successful COP26 now has significantly less firepower, said one former U.K. climate official, who warned their efforts risk being undermined by No. 10’s approach to fossil fuels.
“There was a brain drain of experts working on climate, [the sort of] officials that could help hold government to account internally and try to maintain the level of ambition that we needed,” the former official said.
This spring, the U.K. scrapped the dedicated role of climate envoy, held by the experienced diplomat Nick Bridge since 2017. The remaining team of climate diplomats have been left frustrated, the former official said, by changes to domestic climate policy driven by a Downing Street operation fixated with next year’s U.K. general election, without consideration for how they might affect Britain’s negotiating position on the world stage.
“When Sunak gave his speech in September [rolling back some interim green targets], his team didn’t even realize that a U.N. climate action summit was happening in New York,” the former official said. “His team aren’t thinking in this way. For them it’s just about votes and the election.”
The risk, said the European diplomat, is that countries at COP28 pushing for softer targets on fossil fuels — likely to include the Gulf states, China and Russia — could point to Sunak’s statements on a “proportionate, pragmatic” approach to net zero as a reason to ignore the U.K. and its allies when they call for higher ambition.
“This will happen,” the European diplomat said. “They can point to the U.K.’s prime minister and say — ‘Look what the U.K. is doing with its own climate ambitions. So why are you being such a hard-ass about ours?’”
As for Cameron’s potential impact at the FCDO, the European diplomat was skeptical.
“It was a big surprise for everybody, but we’re not sure what he can do,” they said. “Maybe he can call a referendum on the climate?”
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.