Rishi Sunak insisted he must focus on the “depressing domestic challenges” rather than attend the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt after he was accused of a “failure of leadership”.
The Prime Minister insisted he is “personally committed” to tackling the climate crisis after he pulled out of the United Nations conference next month that Liz Truss was due to attend.
The Government’s environmental credentials were also being questioned after admitting it would miss the deadline to set flagship targets on cleaning up Britain’s waters and boosting biodiversity.
Conservative former culture secretary Nadine Dorries said Mr Sunak is “wrong” not to attend the Sharm El-Sheikh summit, saying global heating is the “biggest crisis facing our planet”.
But Mr Sunak insisted it is “right” for him to instead focus on the UK economy in talks with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt ahead of their autumn budget on November 17.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to a south London hospital, the Prime Minister said: “The leadership that we have shown on the climate is unmatched almost along the world.
“It’s important to me that, as Prime Minister, we leave behind an environment that is better for our children and grandchildren. I’m very passionate about that. I’m very personally committed to it.
“I just think, at the moment, it’s right that I’m also focusing on the depressing domestic challenges we have with the economy.
“I think that’s what people watching would reasonably expect me to be doing as well.”
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey sought to defend Mr Sunak by arguing he will show “global leadership” rather than attending “just a gathering of people in Egypt”.
Ms Coffey suggested the conference is not one of the “big political summits” despite US President Joe Biden being expected to attend.
She insisted the “big political” iterations of the summits only take place every five years, with next month’s being more “low key”.
“The UK continues to show global leadership as opposed to just a gathering of people in Egypt,” she told LBC radio.
The UK hosted last year’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow, with then-PM Boris Johnson stressing the need to act by warning it was a “one minute to midnight moment”.
The Washington Post has reported that the US president will travel to Cop27, in a boost for the gathering and its chances of securing action over the climate crisis.
But Ms Coffey, who was demoted from deputy prime minister to the environment brief this week, told Sky News: “The big push happened last year in Glasgow.
“I am not aware of, say, President Biden or President Macron, or any of those other people will be there (in Egypt). It is quite standard practice that every five years is the big political gathering.”
Meanwhile, Downing Street admitted for the first time that the King was advised not to attend the summit under Ms Truss’s administration, and that the advice was believed to still be in place.
“As is standard practice, Government advice was sought and provided under a previous PM, and it was unanimously agreed that it would not be the right occasion for the King to visit in person,” a spokeswoman said.
“I’m not aware that that advice has changed but obviously any confirmation of the King’s travel would be for the Palace.”
Downing Street had previously refused to comment on a Sunday Times report that Ms Truss had told Charles, a passionate environmental campaigner, not to attend.
A No 10 source insisted at the time it was “ridiculous” to suggest that the PM “gives orders” to the monarch.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer joined environmental campaigners in criticising Mr Sunak’s decision to miss the conference.
“I think many people would be expecting the Prime Minister of the UK, not just to attend Cop, but to use it as an opportunity to pull world leaders together to deal with the climate and to deal with energy,” he said during a visit to Thurrock, in Essex.
“If I was Prime Minister, I would be going, I would be convening and pulling people together and sorting out the issues that are confronting people talking to people this morning who can’t pay their energy bills, they expect their Prime Minister to be on the world stage sorting these problems out.
“It’s an absolute failure of leadership.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who resigned as energy secretary as Mr Sunak took over as Prime Minister, said he was “right not to go to” Cop27.
“The cost of living won’t be solved in Sharm el Sheikh where each hotel room for the conference is £2,000 a night,” Mr Rees-Mogg tweeted.
But Ms Dorries responded: “For balance, my friend…The Prime Minister is WRONG not to go to COP. Global warming is the biggest crisis facing our planet and net zero creates many 1000s of jobs which is good for the economy.
“COP in Glasgow was most successful ever… but don’t expect media to report that.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas said “shame on” Mr Sunak, adding: “The first test of leadership is to turn up. The new PM’s decision not to attend Cop27 makes a mockery of any Government claims on continued climate leadership – and what a shameful way to end the UK’s Cop presidency.”
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said the move suggests Mr Sunak does not take climate change “seriously enough”.
“The UK Government is supposed to hand over the Cop presidency to their Egyptian counterparts at next month’s summit. For Rishi Sunak not to show up is like a runner failing to turn up with the baton at a crucial stage of the relay,” she added.