The 28th UNFCC Conference of the Parties—COP28—is underway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Here comes another COP. Hosting the global climate summit in one of the world’s wealthiest petrostates is, for many, a cause for concern.
The presence of fossil fuel interests isn’t new. Over the past two decades, 7200 industry representatives have attended the COP climate talks. Last year in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 636 fossil fuel lobbyists were registered at COP27. At COP28, the “welcome mat” is out yet again for lobbyists. The latest reports show that at least 2,456 people associated with fossil fuel interests are attending COP28.
The COP host country selects a president each year to help shape the agenda and guide negotiations. Even more influential than a flood of lobbyists at COP28 is the COP president, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the UAE’s industry and technology minister and climate envoy. He also heads up UAE’s state oil giant, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).
Proponents argue that the fossil fuel industry’s participation allows energy companies to be part of the solution. As al-Jaber said, “All views are welcome. All views are needed.”
Critics claim that Big Oil’s feigned interest is a glossy, greenwashed image to promote expanding fossil fuel business opportunities.
Are they both right? Is that even possible?
Climate Change, Big Oil, and the Petrostate
Responding to al-Jaber’s appointment to COP president last January, Teresa Anderson, global head of climate justice at ActionAid, said in a statement, “Like last year’s summit, we’re increasingly seeing fossil fuel interests taking control of the process and shaping it to meet their own needs.”
Even before COP28 began, al-Jaber was under fire after leaked documents published by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC revealed briefing papers suggesting that Sultan al-Jaber “sought to lobby on oil and gas deals during meetings with foreign about the UN climate summit.”
Representatives of the COP presidency told reporters that the “documents referred to are inaccurate and were not used by COP28 in meetings” without elaborating on those inaccuracies. “Private meetings are private, and we do not comment on them.” The extent to which the briefing documents were used is unclear. CCR reports at least one instance of a country following up on business opportunities discussed at a COP meeting.
Despite the unwanted press, the COP made a strong launch, announcing on the first day of a deal to follow through on plans for a loss and damage fund. Usually, delegates are still finding their way around on the first day.
It didn’t take long for al-Jaber to unwittingly grab the spotlight, again, for all the wrong reasons.
Climate Science and Caves
Over the weekend, The Guardian reported on comments made at a November 21 online She Changes Climate event. When former Irish president Mary Robinson challenged al-Jaber to increase urgency in his role as COP president and CEO of Adnoc to phase out fossil fuels, al-Jaber reportedly came out swinging:
“I accepted to come to this meeting to have a sober and mature conversation. I’m not in any way signing up to any discussion that is alarmist.
“There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C.”Sutlant Ahmed al-Jaber
When Robinson asked about Adnoc’s plans to expand fossil fuel production, al-Jaber said, “You’re reading your own media, which is biased and wrong. I am telling you I am the man in charge.”
“Please help me,” he said, “show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development unless you want to take the world back into caves.”
The pushback to al-Jaber’s comments was swift:
“The science is clear: The 1.5C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce, not abate. Phase out, with a clear timeframe,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told COP28 delegates on Friday.
“This is an extraordinary, revealing, worrying, and belligerent exchange, said Climate Analytics CEO Bill Hare. “‘Sending us back to caves’ is the oldest of fossil fuel industry tropes: it’s verging on climate denial.”
As for the roadmap al-Jaber asks for, Hare suggests he consult the International Energy Agency’s latest Net Zero by 2050 Scenario report.
Sultan al-Jaber takes umbrage with the suggestion of any impropriety, accusing critics of misinformation and mischaracterization.
“The IEA and IPCC 1.5C scenarios clearly state that fossil fuels will have to play a role in the future energy system, albeit a smaller one,” said a COP spokesperson. “The COP president was quoting the science and leading climate experts.”
What isn’t often mentioned in these discussions is al-Jaber’s role on the board of directors of Masdar, UAE’s renewable energy company.
Scandal, Intrigue, and the Bridge Petrostate
If these global climate summits sometimes appear a bit murky—long on talk, drama, and suspicion and short on progress—that’s understandable. This is the 28th COP conference, after all, and we’re talking about the same things we were decades ago. The arcane word salad of climate negotiates produces more hot air than action. And there is no shortage of hot air.
By all accounts, the UAE and Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber sincerely intend to be a part of the climate solution. But when a petrostate with plans to invest $150 billion to expand oil and gas fields claims to lead the way to a net zero future, it can appear cynical—a plan for grabbing more fossil fuel wealth while the world burns.
It isn’t easy to separate the glaringly bad optics from the potential of a wealthy oil-producing nation—ostensibly intent on achieving net zero—helping to guide the global energy transition. It’s hard to trust a plan to achieve net zero by investing billions to expand oil and gas production.
Could the path to decarbonization be so circuitous that we need to burn more to stop burning fossil fuels—at least for now? That’s one way to look at it. Unsurprisingly, one that many fossil fuel energy companies endorse, including al-Jaber’s Adnoc. He advocates for energy fossil fuel companies to meet the challenge through a massive scale-up and commercialization of hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Both are a long way from scale or commercial use and could make matters worse. As always, the devil is in the details.
Fossil fuels have brought the Emirates great wealth, lifting the tiny state into a global authoritarian powerhouse. However, the UAE lives in the same world as the rest of us, and they see the writing on the wall. If the world gives up oil too quickly (not likely), their kingdom could crumble. Ignore the problem, and no amount of fossil fuel wealth will shield the country from the worst ravishes of a warming world. Scientists warn that the region could become too hot within this century for human survival.
Could the UAE lead other oil-producing nations as a “bridge petrostate,” laying out the path to rely on natural gas and CCS to ease the rest of the world into a decarbonized future? Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber thinks so. Others are not so sure.
Appearances can be deceiving, but not always.