‘Outrageous’: UK Minister Graham Stuart slammed for taking a break from COP28 at crucial moment

Energy Security and Net-Zero Minister Graham Stuart has left COP28 early, with ongoing negotiations surpassing schedule. However, he is anticipated to fly more than 3,000 miles back to Dubai for the closing plenary, following a vote in London regarding the deportation of refugees to Rwanda.

‘Outrageous’: UK Minister Graham Stuart slammed for taking a break from COP28 at crucial moment

Image: UNFCCC Flickr / Kiara Worth

At the UN’s climate summit negotiations have spanned nearly two weeks, and the latest draft text has raised last-minute concerns about a diluted stance on crucial aspects like fossil fuels, adaptation and finance, underscoring the need for decisive leadership to push for a more ambitious action plan.

The finalised iteration of the Global Stocktake text is expected to be released imminently. However, despite this urgency, Minister Stuart, tasked with pivotal decisions and overseeing UK negotiations, has departed from the venue.

A Government spokesperson confirmed: “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, including by Lord Benyon at Ministerial level.

“Minister Stuart will continue to be the lead UK Minister for negotiations and remains in constant contact with the UK Lead Climate Negotiator and Lord Benyon, with any final decisions agreed with him.”

The UK’s Lead Climate Negotiator Alison Campbell continues to lead negotiations for the UK at COP28.

At the Ministerial level, Lord Benyon, representing the UK, will be meeting key representatives from other countries, including US Climate Envoy John Kerry, the Tuvalu Minister for Finance, the Norwegian Foreign Minister and the UAE Undersecretary at its Ministry of Climate Change.

Lord Benyon will also be attending formal set-piece meetings with Campbell and can represent the UK at the closing plenary.

Nevertheless, Stuart’s decision has drawn criticism from green groups, particularly because the final rounds of discussions could potentially tip COP28 toward either perpetuating reliance on fossil fuels or steering the world away from them.

After Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rolled back on net-zero policies and expanded oil and gas licensing, there were worries among the green groups about the UK’s ability to maintain climate leadership at COP and repair its image after sending conflicting signals.

Now, the UK’s reluctance to endorse a complete ‘phase-out of all fossil fuels’ at the conference, coupled with last-minute representation changes, have intensified these doubts.

Stuart stated on Tuesday afternoon (12 December) that the UK will “only agree to a statement that agrees to a phase-out of unabated fossil fuels”. Before COP28 began, he told MPs that he would back a phase-out rather than a phase-down, and leave a caveat for carbon capture, in an attempt to appeal to a broad coalition of nations. 

This aligns with the narrative the US is pushing, while China, the African Group and India also want a phase-down rather than out. But the EU is pushing hard for a phase-out, as are small island states.

Here’s the reaction from  green groups regarding Minister Stuart’s departure:

Tommy Vickerstaff, UK team lead at 350.org, said:

“It’s frankly disgusting but unsurprising to see Stuart.. leave the UN climate talks at this crucial moment. Climate campaigners from the Pacific are literally in tears at the complete abandonment the current draft agreement means for their islands, their communities, and their lives.

“The UK Government is looking these communities in the eyes and choosing to walk out. They’re showing an utter disregard for their responsibility to tackle the climate crisis and the arrogance of the UK to continue bankrolling fossil fuels and blocking the transition to renewable energy and to walk out of this space is staggering.

“The phrase ‘history will judge them’ might seem apt here – but the UK public is already doing it. This repetitive failure of the UK government to meet the needs of our communities will once again be met by anger and protest. It seems we cannot expect much from our government right now, but they should expect plenty from us.”

Rachel Kennerley, international climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said:

“It’s astounding that the minister responsible for delivering climate action is deserting COP28 with crucial negotiations hanging in the balance.

“This starkly highlights the government’s priorities and that it’s prepared to sacrifice people on the frontlines of the climate crisis at home and globally for short term political gain.

“With the UK’s 2030 climate target to cut emissions by two-thirds seriously off track, and Rishi Sunak’s pledge to ‘max out’ North Sea gas and oil, this move strikes another blow to this government’s crumbling international climate credibility.”

Catherine Pettengell, executive director, Climate Action Network UK (CAN-UK), said:

“In the closing hours of COP27 the UK passionately called for a phase-out of fossil fuels to keep 1.5C alive, but we did not get the agreement that year – and we come here to COP28 to finally get that outcome.

“Now, at the absolute crunch point of talks, the Minister Graham Stuart, is high-tailing it back to London to put short-term party politics ahead of securing long-term solutions to a global existential crisis.

“Delegates from Rwanda are here pushing for ambitious action to protect their country and people from worsening climate impacts. Meanwhile, the UK government is doing deals that put people at risk of harm, including return to the very oppressive regimes they were fleeing from when they sought sanctuary in the UK.”

Francesca Rhodes, senior climate and gender policy adviser, CARE International UK, said:

“It is staggering that the UK Government has no Ministers attending the final critical days of COP28. These negotiations will decide the fate of millions of people facing floods, fires and famine due to the climate crisis.

“The UK has played a productive role in the talks so far but leaving early is simply shameful. Time and again, wealthy countries have let down low-income countries. The latest text was deeply disappointing and does not keep 1.5C alive.

“When the UK should be standing up for marginalised communities, including women and girls, Rishi Sunak’s Government has gone AWOL.”

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said:

“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.

“Instead of fleeing Dubai to vote on an immoral Bill, Graham 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 phaseout. 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 away from fossil fuels.

“The world is watching, and the Conservative Government’s failure to lead at COP28 is becoming increasingly obvious.”

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