In a barbed resignation letter, Lord Goldsmith has accused the government of withdrawing leadership on climate change and the prime minister of being “uninterested” in the environment.
Rishi Sunak was quick to reject the claims, pointing to the UK’s recent involvement in the successful Montreal biodiversity summit, and highlighting that the UK continues to maintain more ambitious decarbonisation targets than many other countries.
But the truth is there are concerns, at home and abroad, that Lord Goldsmith, who has quit as an environment minister, has a point.
This week the independent Climate Change Committee said the government was significantly off track in meeting its commitment to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
It said progress is now “worryingly slow” and the committee was “markedly less” confident than it was a year ago that the government would reach its targets.
The committee also said the government’s support for new oil and gas in the North Sea was sending “confusing signals” to the international community about its climate priorities.
The government is considering granting more than 100 new licences to drill, including a huge oil field called Rosebank which is expected to be approved in the coming weeks, despite the UN saying that new fossil fuel extraction is incompatible with limiting global warming.
The committee also said that the approval of a new coal mine in Cumbria “undermined” the careful agreements negotiated by the UK when it hosted COP26 in Glasgow nearly a year and a half ago.
When it comes to the world stage, it is true that the UK has enjoyed a reputation as a leader on things like wind power, but there have been mounting complaints from the renewables industry that more must be done to compete with huge subsidies packages from the US and EU.
Former Conservative prime minister Theresa May gave a speech on Thursday in which she said: “We have been slow to act in the face of intense competition from abroad.
“Where the UK once led, we are now falling behind.”
Perhaps the most damaging accusation in Lord Goldsmith’s resignation was that the government has effectively abandoned an £11.6bn pledge to help the most vulnerable countries tackle climate change.
Climate finance has become a matter of trust between rich and poor nations, and the continued failure of the international community to keep its promises threatens to undermine broader climate negotiations.
Rishi Sunak was quick to deny that he has changed his mind over the money, but there have been calls from campaigners for Mr Sunak to clarify the details of how he plans to deliver this and over what timeframe.