After Cop28, know this: Sunak and his rightwing allies around the world have no interest in saving our planet

Not only did Rishi Sunak spend more time travelling to Cop28 on his private jet than attending the conference itself, he also delivered a speech at the Dubai summit doubling down on the decision to abandon crucial climate policies on heat pumps and energy efficiency, as revealed in his September announcement. All this while using the diminishing strength of the UK’s green credentials as a shield. These actions lay bare the troubling path the Conservatives have chosen ahead of the next general election. But across western states, abandoning long-held climate commitments is becoming the norm for rightwing parties.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Freedom party has secured the most votes in the country’s recent general election and wants to undo the green transition. In New Zealand, the National party has formed a coalition with the populist NZ First party and ACT, a rightwing party that wants to repeal the Zero Carbon Act. In Germany, the AfD, the far-right party that is second in national opinion polls, has previously called for an end to all climate action efforts. In Canada, polls show that the Conservatives, who voted not to recognise the climate crisis as real two years ago, would win the upcoming 2025 election if it were held today.

Previously in the UK, the climate crisis has not been a partisan issue. Despite differences in approaches, the broad political consensus of the last 20 years has been that we need climate action regardless of which party is in power. Yet progress is slipping, and the Climate Change Committee, an independent body that advises the government on emissions, isn’t confident that the UK will meet its 2030 carbon budget delivery plan target.

Conservatives have failed to deliver on climate policy before. Though David Cameron’s government once declared itself the greenest ever, he later decided to “cut the green crap”. Theresa May approved a third Heathrow runway and infamously got rid of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Boris Johnson’s plans for a green industrial revolution were criticised for being “nowhere near enough to manage the British government commitment to net zero emissions by 2050”. In her brief stint in No 10, Liz Truss wanted to ban solar power from most of England’s farmland.

Yet Sunak’s major U-turn on the government’s climate commitments signified a new shift within the Conservative party: delayed timelines. No longer is this government just not doing enough in terms of policy; it’s now actively choosing to defer deadlines set by previous governments.

So what is behind this shift and why is it happening now? Ahead of an upcoming and long-awaited general election, where the Tories are bracing for a major loss, climate policies have become a tangible point of difference against the Labour party, which has promised a £28bn green fund. The last year has proven that increasingly, the climate crisis is being used as a political football. Local transport policies such as Ulez, low-traffic neighbourhoods and clean air zones, aimed at improving public health and reducing harmful emissions, have been criticised by some Conservative politicians, while 15-minute cities, designed to reduce dependency on cars, have been painted as “sinister” by the transport secretary, Mark Harper. Claire Coutinho, the secretary of state for energy security and net zero, made a false claim that Labour wants to tax meat to reduce consumption, while Sunak has announced that his government will scrap “plans for households to have seven recycling bins” and abandon the 2028 deadline for landlords to have energy-efficient properties.

These anti-green narratives and policy reversals are calculated; Sunak is vying for the votes of motorists, landlords and homeowners next year. Yet it would be too simplistic to say that the tide against green is only about winning votes, as more than 80% of UK residents are concerned about the climate crisis. This move is also ideological and shifts the UK further to the right, in tandem with many of its western counterparts. Sunak, who last year claimed that he “will govern as a Thatcherite”, is a neoliberal ideologue. Neoliberals don’t like big government spending or intervention, and we know that market forces can’t make the green transition happen by themselves.

Looking back, it was inevitable that emissions reduction pledges from nearly two decades ago would be watered down. Tackling the climate crisis always required substantial investment and interventionalist policy, a contradiction of Tory ideology, which has lately taken an even more extreme turn. The foundations for where we are now were laid by Tory politicians who chose to kick the can down the road. We are just further down the timeline now, and facing a reckoning.

Britain is in a period of economic stagnation and high inflation, a phenomenon also known as stagflation. Instead of outlining how our dependence on fossil fuels has compacted the factors behind stagflation – a steep rise in oil and gas prices and increases in energy bills – the Tory cabinet is using this moment as an opportunity to turn its back on green policymaking. Boiled down, the “cost of net zero” narrative suggests that green investments are too decadent. In reality, not dealing with the climate crisis now will result in the public paying many times more for it in the future. For adherents of disaster capitalism – a tactic that uses collective shock (natural disasters, market crashes, war) to push through radical, pro-corporate government policy – this is simply another opportunity for business.

The right’s renunciation of last week’s climate commitments feels almost unavoidable. Preceding administrations proved adept at rhetoric, yet their actions remained conspicuously lacking during their terms in office. Lip service and limited intervention could pass as progress a decade ago, yet today, delayed action is starkly inadequate in the face of imminent interlocking crises. To square the circle, they have just thrown the policies out of the window.

Of course, not everyone in the Conservative party is happy. One camp seems genuinely wedded to the idea of a green transition with extensive market intervention. But at the moment, the neoliberals and climate sceptics are firmly in control. With a general election looming, it seems likely that Sunak will lead a campaign based on weakening green pledges, ignoring concerned voices in his party.

  • Diyora Shadijanova is a journalist and writer