Rishi Sunak is facing fresh outrage from climate campaigners after it emerged that the prime minister, the King, and foreign secretary David Cameron are taking separate jets to the Cop28 conference in Dubai.
Downing Street confirmed all three of the leading British representatives at the crucial summit – aimed at cutting global emissions – will each get their own private plane.
No 10 defended the decision to have Mr Sunak and Lord Cameron travel separately – as it was confirmed junior ministers and officials would fly out on commercial flights rather than travel with the PM’s entourage.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson claimed that there was nothing wrong with so many flights since the government is “not anti-flying” and is pushing new sustainable fuels.
But opposition parties and activists accused Mr Sunak of climate hypocrisy – criticising the use of separate jets as “setting an awful example” and being a “waste of taxpayers’ cash”.
Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said: “We are not anti-flying. We do not seek to restrict the public from doing so and it’s important the UK has strong attendance at Cop28, given we continue to be a world leader in tackling climate change.”
The No 10 official added: “This government’s approach to tackling climate change, as we have set out repeatedly, is not about banning or reducing people from flying. It is through investing in new technologies of the future, as evidenced by the flight just yesterday using sustainable aviation fuel.”
The Liberal Democrats’ climate spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said the use of separate private jets “is not just a waste of taxpayers’ cash, it sends all the wrong signals about the UK’s climate commitments”.
She added: “The UK should be playing a leading role at Cop28 … instead, this government is slashing net zero targets at home while taking polluting private flights abroad.”
Rishi Sunak at last year’s Cop27 climate summit in Egypt— (Getty Images)
Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer said Mr Sunak and Lord Cameron were members of a “super-rich elite who are super-heating the planet”. She added: “A short trip on a private jet will produce more carbon than the average person emits all year.”
Todd Smith, an Extinction Rebellion (XR) spokesperson, said Mr Sunak and Lord Cameron were “setting an awful example” and “protecting the interests of their rich mates”.
The activist said three in four Britons would not need to change their flying habits to achieve net zero. “It is only a small minority of private jet users, frequent flyers and first-class travellers that are ruining it for the rest of us.”
Helena Bennett, head of climate policy at the think tank Green Alliance, said it was “not a good look” for ministers to travel on separate flights. “To discourage this, and pay for the environmental damage they cause, we should levy a new tax on the fuel private jets use.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said the “excessive climate-wrecking private flights amount to pumping jet fumes in the face of those on the frontline of this crisis”. She also backed a new levy on private jets to “make them think twice before hopping on the next one”.
Ed Matthew of the E3G campaign group said ministers should be banned from travelling on private jets. “This is not just about saving emissions. It is about leading by example.”
Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, added: “It’s important for our leaders to show respect for the amount of carbon dioxide they emit. Is it really beyond the capability of them and their offices to ensure that they fly by chartered or even just coordinate their own efforts?”
Foreign secretary Lord Cameron and Rishi Sunak are travelling separately— (PA )
No 10 also insisted that Mr Sunak’s plane will use 30 per cent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and that carbon offsetting will be used to minimise its impact. It is understood that SAF is also being used for the King’s flight to Dubai.
Downing Street also pointed out that the foreign secretary would be travelling on to Dubai from a two-day summit with EU and Nato leaders.
Mr Sunak has come in for repeated criticism for his frequent use of taxpayer-funded jets and helicopters for his trips around Britain.
Labour mocked the Tory leader’s “breathtaking lack of self-awareness” after he posted a photo of himself in a private jet to highlight his move to scrap HS2’s northern leg. It emerged in the autumn that the PM had taken a private flight for travel in the UK once every eight days since entering No 10.
It is not clear whether Mr Sunak or Lord Cameron will be using “Cam Force One” – the former RAF jet given a refit when the foreign secretary was still prime minister. Almost £1m was spent painting it red, white and blue at Boris Johnson’s behest in 2020.
A smaller private jet also leased by the government for ministers or members of the royal family was given a similar patriotic makeover.
The first transatlantic flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – operated by Virgin Atlantic – flew from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK airport on Tuesday.
The transport secretary, Mark Harper, who was on board, said it “shows how we can decarbonise transport” while Mr Sunak said it was “a major milestone” towards “decarbonising our skies”.
Virgin Atlantic operated the first transatlantic flight powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel on Tuesday— (Reuters)
However, campaigners accused the government of making misleading claims. Cait Hewitt, policy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said: “The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke.”
The industry has argued that “lifecycle emissions” of SAFs can be up to 70 per cent lower than traditional aviation fuels. But SAFs currently account for less than 0.1 per cent of the fuel consumed on global flights.
Jets used by the super-rich are up to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes per passenger, and 50 times more polluting than trains, according to a study by the Transport & Environment campaign group.
Ahead of the Cop28 summit, Mr Sunak said protection of nature was “at the centre” of Tory “action to tackle climate change”. It came as the government announced plans for a new national park for England, as well as greater protections for trees and urban wildlife havens.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will also attend the Cop28 summit in Dubai. He is expected to stay longer than Mr Sunak, hoping to “bang the drum for Britain” and push his green jobs plan.