Alok Sharma criticised for air travel by rivals but green groups stay silent
Political leaders have accused Cop26 president Alok Sharma of “hypocrisy” after it emerged he has flown to at least 30 countries this year in the run-up to the climate summit.
Mr Sharma also attracted criticism for failing to self-isolate after visits to red-list countries, most recently Bolivia and Brazil, by relying on rules exempting ministers from quarantine.
The former secretary of state for business remains in Brazil where he is meeting with state and business leaders in a bid to get them to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Sarah Olney MP accused him of treating flexible rules for Crown servants as a “get-out-of-jail free” card.
As usual with this Government, it's one rule for them and another for everybody else
The MP for Richmond Park said: “As usual with this Government, it’s one rule for them and another for everybody else.
“While Alok Sharma flies to red-list countries with abandon, hard-working families can hardly see loved ones or plan holidays as the Government changes travel rules on the hoof.
“People are sick of the Government giving themselves get-out-of-jail free passes while the rest of us stick to the rules.”
She added: “The Conservatives have fallen completely out of touch with the concept of decency and this is another example to add to a catalogue of errors made during this pandemic.
“Only an inquiry can do the British people justice.”
Green Party peer Baroness Jones said: “‘I do understand it’s very good to meet people in person, but this is excessive.
“When you’re in charge of Cop26, to take this many flights is hypocritical.”
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy described the volume of Mr Sharma’s travel as “hugely worrying”.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “The optics are very clear – it’s one rule for them and another rule for us, whether it’s Dominic Cummings, whether it’s Matt Hancock, whether it’s Alok Sharma.
“Of course, some international travel is required, but this amount of international travel when you’re climate change minister feels to me bizarre, and feels to not be setting the example.”
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford also voiced his concern, telling Sky: “I’m afraid I do think it really undermines the effort that we know everybody has to make.
“We’ve all got used to having meetings with people in different parts of the world without needing to travel around the world to do it.
“And when we’re trying to persuade people to make the changes they need to make, we need to make, in our daily lives, transport, in our own homes, in the way that we think about the contribution we can make, we need the people at the very top to be demonstrating that they are doing that too, not thinking that that is for other people to carry that burden.”
But the UK’s most powerful green organisations declined to comment publicly on Mr Sharma’s air miles.
A source told the PA news agency that they were reluctant to condemn the Cop26 president because he faces an enormous battle to make a success of the talks and sometimes face-to-face talks are necessary.
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is a notorious climate change sceptic and has attracted international criticism for his moves to roll back legal protection for the Amazon rainforest.
An area of the Amazon larger than Greater London was destroyed in August 2019 and August 2020, according to data from Brazilian space institute Inpe, the highest rate of deforestation since 2008.
A UK Government spokesman said: “Helping the world tackle the climate emergency is an international priority for the Government.
“Virtual meetings play a large part, however face-to-face meetings are key to success in the climate negotiations the UK is leading as hosts of Cop26 and are crucial to understanding first-hand the opportunities and challenges other countries are facing in the fight against climate change.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman also robustly defended Mr Sharma, pointing out he had secured ambitious carbon reduction pledges from some of the world’s biggest emitters during his visits.
The spokesman said: “As Cop president, Alok Sharma is leading climate negotiations with countries including major emitters to cut emissions and secure ambitious action ahead of the Cop26 summit.
“The majority of this work is done remotely but some travel to key countries for face-to-face talks is essential.”
He continued: “Immediately following his visit to Japan and South Korea the governments there committed to ambitious net zero targets, which was a key ask from the UK.”
“Ministers conducting essential travel such as this are exempted from quarantine, as set out in the rules,” the spokesman added.
Asked if he would quarantine on his return from Brazil, the spokesman said: “He will continue to comply with the rules as set out.”
Under coronavirus regulations, ministers conducting essential travel are exempt from quarantine regardless of the status of the country.
Mr Sharma and his delegation were frequently tested for Covid-19, it is understood, while social distancing guidelines and the wearing of mask was enforced.
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