It is not surprising that the appointment of Sultan Al-Jaber as president of COP 28, which opened on 30th November, has been embroiled in controversy. Appointing the chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, ADNOC, as the president of a global climate summit is not the most thoughtful or wisest of decisions. It predictably sparked a backlash from climate activists and many charities. “This appointment goes beyond putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Teresa Anderson, global lead on climate justice at Action Aid.
The conflict of interest is stark. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists point out that oil and gas account for 27% of the UAE economy and half of the country’s exports. ADNOC, is also on course to become the second largest oil producer in the world by 2050 – including state-run and publicly listed operators – according to new Global Witness analysis.
Al-Jaber is therefore presiding over a conference whose goal is to prevent dangerous climate change. Since the 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, this would mean keeping global warming from exceeding 1.5° Celsius above preindustrial average temperatures. In reality, a safe limit would be much lower.
Even before the conference started, it was clear that Al-Jaber was struggling with his role as chief executive of a national oil company and accepting the fact that fossil fuels are by far the largest contributor to global climate change. During a webinar prior to the start of the conference he reacted angrily to a question from Mary Robinson, Ireland’s former President, who asked whether all fossil fuels would need to be phased out. He sharply retorted that there was “no science” to support that. He also said, during the increasingly heated 21st November live online debate, that a phase-out wouldn’t allow for sustainable development, “unless you want to take the world back into caves”.
The UAE appears oblivious to the impact climate change is having on its own region. Beaches are being floodlit for night-time bathing because the days are unbearably hot. It is also predicted that portions of the country may be uninhabitable later this century. Yet the UAE plans to increase oil production capacity by a quarter this decade, and gas capacity by 150%.
The fact that Al-Jaber is unable to switch from focusing on his business objectives, even during his time as president of COP28, is further suggested by documents released by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC.
It is alleged that he used his position as president to include ‘talking points about potential oil and gas deals with foreign governments’. Al-Jaber denies these allegations. He states that the allegations are false and an attempt to undermine the work of the COP28 presidency. He further argues that neither he nor the UAE needs the COP presidency to establish better deals or commercial relationships.
Despite these denials, campaigners remain unsatisfied. Alice Harrison, the fossil fuel campaign lead at Global Witness, stated that the international climate process had been hijacked by the oil and gas industry. She argued that the leak must be the final nail in the coffin of the long debunked idea that the fossil fuel industry can play any part in the solution to the crisis that it created.
However, Al-Jaber being appointed to the presidency of this year’s conference is the tip of the iceberg. It has been revealed that over 2,500 of the delegates are from the oil and gas industry, a fourfold increase on last year. It is unlikely that this is because they have suddenly developed a burning passion against the ravages of climate change. They are there to protect their vested interests, and those interests are in ensuring the world continues to depend to some extent on fossil fuels.
So there will be heated debates as to whether there should be a ‘phasing out’ or a ‘phasing down’ of fossil fuels, and whether the requirements should be ‘abated’ or ‘unabated’’ which would allow a limited role for using carbon capture and storage technology.
The reality is that there will be a compromise between the interests of the planet and the interests of powerful capital.
Meanwhile, the earth will continue to burn.