The UK minister in charge of Cop28 climate talks has returned to London, the Guardian has learned, leaving civil servants to finish the fraught negotiations in his absence.
Graham Stuart, the minister of state for climate change, left Dubai on Tuesday morning to return to his duties as an MP, the government confirmed, even as the summit reached crisis point.
A government spokesperson told the Guardian: “Minister Stuart has returned to the UK to attend parliament in his role as an MP. There will continue to be full official representation on the ground at the summit and Minister Stuart will continue to be the lead UK minister for negotiations with any final decisions agreed with him.”
The spokesperson would not confirm whether Stuart had returned to take part in the vote on Rishi Sunak’s controversial policy on Rwanda.
The departure by a head of delegation for a leading developed country was met with shock and disbelief from campaigners and other delegations at the talks. One told the Guardian the UK had raised eyebrows at the talks with its seeming lack of commitment.
The fortnight-long talks have reached a crisis, after a draft deal by the host country, United Arab Emirates, was rejected by scores of developed and developing country governments, including the UK.
Although the text called for a reduction in the production and consumption of fossil fuels, it contained no obligation for countries to make such cuts, instead framing it as one of a list of options that countries “could” undertake.
“That one word ‘could’ just kills everything,” said Eamon Ryan, Ireland’s environment minister, adding that the EU could walk out of the talks if the text did not improve.
No end to negotiations is yet in sight, as countries are locked in disagreement over whether to phase out or phase down fossil fuels.
The UK strongly rejected the text that was tabled by the presidency on Monday evening in Dubai, with Stuart visiting the UAE presidency to demand a toughening up of the text.
The UK says it wants a full phase-out of fossil fuels to be agreed at these talks. However, critics have pointed out that the UK is also planning a new round of oil and gas licences in the North Sea.
Sunak attended the talks briefly in their opening days, but was criticised for staying for less time talking to other leaders than he spent on the private jet that carried him to and from the conference.
Claire Coutinho, the secretary of state for energy security and net zero, also attended for a few days at the beginning of the talks but left before the crunch negotiations began, leaving Stuart in charge of the UK’s delegation.
Most other countries are represented at Cop28 by their equivalent of cabinet minister rank, so the UK was already unusual in having its delegation headed by a junior minister.
Rebecca Newsom, of Greenpeace, told the Guardian: “This is an outrageous dereliction of leadership at the most critical point during this conference. This is the moment when we need to see bold political commitments to unlock the gridlock on the text.”
She added: “Instead of fleeing Dubai, Stuart should be here to broker the compromises really needed to act upon developing countries’ urgent demands for more public finance to deliver a full fossil fuel phase out.
“And he should be making clear that the UK, as a rich historically polluting country, is prepared to lead the way on delivering the renewable transition way from fossil fuels. The world is watching, and the Conservative government’s failure to lead at Cop28 is becoming increasingly obvious.”
Chris Skidmore, the Tory MP who wrote a review of the government’s net zero policies, said: “The decisions taken at this Cop are far more important and vital for the future of all nations than the outcome of a vote tonight that will have little or no impact in the long term.
“Politics is about priorities and our priorities should be demonstrating clear UK leadership on climate action, but you have to actually be in the room to lead. .”
Ed Miliband, the shadow minister for energy security and net zero, said: “The sad truth is that, thanks to Rishi Sunak tanking Britain’s reputation on the world stage, many countries simply won’t even notice that his minister has disappeared.
“Graham Stuart flying home in the middle of critical negotiations tells you everything you need to know about this Conservative government. They are weak, divided and chaotic and can’t stand up and fight for lower energy bills for the British people, can’t stand up and fight for investment into our country, and they can’t stand up and fight to provide climate leadership.”
The Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “The government’s last shred of moral authority in tackling the climate emergency has been obliterated by this scandalous decision to leave Cop28 negotiations at the most critical moment.
“Adding insult to injury, if true that the minister is leaving the summit in order to vote in favour of the utterly immoral Rwanda deal, it shows that Rishi Sunak prioritises saving his own skin over saving the planet.”
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