With UK climate credentials in doubt, opposition leader Starmer in demand at COP28

The Labour Party leader holds meetings on climate change and Israel-Hamas war with world leaders

By Reuters

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Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. - AFP
Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. - AFP

Published: Mon 4 Dec 2023, 6:50 PM

Britain's opposition leader Keir Starmer was in his element as he rubbed shoulders with world leaders at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, almost as if in rehearsal for the role of prime minister he hopes will soon be his.

During a two-day visit to the Gulf, the Labour Party leader held meetings on climate change and the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza with leaders including the Emir of Qatar, the King of Jordan and the president of Brazil. He had chats with US climate envoy John Kerry and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Attending a roundtable of investors with more than $2 trillion of assets under management, Starmer also took the chance to discuss his growth plans for Britain, his office said.

It is not unusual for opposition leaders to receive summit invitations, but COP28 is particularly resonant. Before a British election expected next year, politicians are balancing the importance of tackling climate change, with the enormous investments associated with shifting to a greener economy.

The tensions found a flashpoint in attempts to reduce vehicle emissions in London and in September, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weakened some domestic CO2-cutting policies.

Starmer, who is 20-points ahead in the opinion polls, outlasted Sunak by a day at COP28, where he pledged to make Britain "stand tall in the world" and undo the dithering and climate damage he said the government had inflicted.

"While the Conservatives use it (net zero) to appease their party and sow political division, my Labour government will harness it in the national interest, to turbocharge growth," he said in a statement.

Sunak meanwhile found himself asked at a news conference whether other leaders at COP28 had questioned his decision to water down domestic green measures, such as the ban on sales of new petrol cars.


"Not a single leader that I've spoken to today has spoken about that. Do you know why? Because most of their targets are less ambitious than the UK's," Sunak said.

The response was at odds with comments from some governments.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said his government was "somewhat worried" by the UK's move, and hoped it was only "a flirt with populist sentiments".

"To think that you're doing your public a favour by moving away from strict climate goals is actually wrong," he said, citing growing demand for low-emissions products and the opportunity for job creation.

Ireland's climate minister Eamon Ryan hailed Britain's climate leadership, but also said Sunak's reset of some measures had not gone down well when the news was reported while he was in New York for the UN General Assembly.

Britain's development minister Andrew Mitchell, at COP28, told Reuters what Sunak did "was very good government".

"He was saying, we're going to hit these (net zero) targets anyway, and therefore we can rein back a bit on the costs for ordinary people. I think that's extremely honourable."

Sunak has also drawn criticism from Labour and some in his own party after his cancellation last week of a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis over ownership of the Parthenon sculptures.

Sunak's team said the Greek leader had broken a promise not to use the meeting to advocate for the return of the sculptures, known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles, from the British Museum.

But the Conservatives' former finance minister George Osborne questioned whether Sunak had been angered that Kitsotakis had met Starmer before him.

"Is it just petulance? Is it just having a bit of a hissy fit?" he asked on his podcast.

More news from COP 28