Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain rejected claims on Friday that he had lowered his country’s net-zero ambitions and pledged to meet targets in a more pragmatic way.
At a news conference, Mr. Sunak, who was spending just a few hours at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, committed 1.6 billion pounds, or about $2 billion, for international climate finance projects, including for renewable energy and forests, fulfilling a promise to spend a total of £11.6 billion over five years.
Mr. Sunak said that Britain was “leading by example” but then added swiftly that excessive costs from the transition to net zero should not be borne by ordinary Britons.
“We won’t tackle climate change unless we take people with us,” he said. “Climate politics is close to breaking point.”
“The British people care about the environment,” added Mr. Sunak, who has been trailing in opinion polls ahead of an election that is likely to take place next year. “They know that the costs of inaction are intolerable, but they also know that we have choices about how we act. So, yes, we will meet our targets but we will do it in a more pragmatic way which doesn’t burden working people.”
Mr. Sunak has recently stressed his determination to limit costs to Britons, whose living standards are being squeezed by inflation as their economy stagnates.
That emphasis on Friday from the British prime minister was in striking contrast to the more idealistic tone of King Charles III, a lifelong supporter of environmental causes, who told leaders earlier at the same meeting that “hope of the world” rested on the decisions they took.
Britain has been regarded as one of the global leaders in combating climate change, but this year Mr. Sunak signaled a shift in policy when he said he would delay a ban on the sale of gas and diesel cars by five years, and lower targets for replacing gas boilers.
That followed a surprise victory in July in a parliamentary election in northwestern London, where his Conservative Party campaigned against moves by the city’s Labour mayor to expand an air-quality initiative that raised fees for drivers of older, more polluting vehicles.
On Friday, Mr. Sunak emphasized pragmatism in climate policy even as he insisted that Britain had “done more than others up until now” and would continue to do so.
When asked about the brevity of his visit and why he would spend more time in his plane than on the ground in Dubai, Mr. Sunak responded: “I wouldn’t measure our impact here by hours spent. I would measure it by the actual things we are doing.”