Published2 days ago
The United Arab Emirates has named the head of the state oil company, Sultan Al Jaber, as the president of this year’s UN climate conference, COP28. But how can one man dedicate himself both to selling fossil fuels and tackling the climate crisis?
The UAE is one of the 10 largest oil producers in the world. The state oil company, Adnoc, pumped 2.7 million barrels of oil per day in 2021, according to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).
But the company has bigger plans. It aims to nearly double output to five million barrels per day by 2027 – a target date brought forward from 2030 two months ago by its CEO, Sultan Al Jaber.
“We are an emerging upstream company… with a mandate to stay focused on exploring the UAE’s undeveloped oil and gas potential,” reads the Adnoc website.
So, climate activists and campaigners are now asking how Mr Al Jaber can play an effective role as COP28 president, a conference that will take take stock of where countries are in terms of commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A UN assessment last year showed countries current policies would lead to 11% increase in emissions by 2030 from 2010 levels, while a reduction of nearly 43% from 2019 levels is needed, scientists say, if the target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels is to be met.
“It is the equivalent of appointing the CEO of a cigarette company to oversee a conference on cancer cures,” said Zeina Khalil Hajj, head of global campaigning for 350.org, which campaigns for a complete end to the use of fossil fuels.
“We are extremely concerned that it will open floodgates for greenwashing, and oil and gas deals to keep exploiting fossil fuels. COP28 cannot turn into an expo for the fossil fuel industry.”
Amnesty International’s climate adviser, Chiara Liguori, also said the appointment sent the wrong signal.
“It is also a disappointing selection for all those hoping COP28 will offer swift progress on reducing carbon emissions and delivering climate justice,” she said.
But Mr Al Jaber also has another hat. As well as heading Adnoc – and being the UAE’s minister of industry and advanced technology – he is also the chairman of Masdar, a renewable energy firm now active in over 40 countries.
Launched in 2006, it has invested in mainly solar and wind power projects with a total capacity of 15 gigawatts, capable of displacing more than 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
Like Adnoc, Masdar has ambitious plans, aiming to increase its capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2030, and to double that in years to come.
Unusually for a country whose economy is based largely on oil and gas production, the UAE has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, though it has not fully explained how it will achieve this target – or how it squares with Adnoc’s plans to explore the country’s undeveloped oil and gas potential. (The UAE has proven crude oil reserves of 111 billion barrels.)
So how does Sultan Al Jaber reconcile these two agendas?
“The world needs maximum energy… minimum emissions,” he said in an address at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference in October.
“The world needs all the solutions it can get. It is oil and gas and solar, and wind and nuclear, and hydrogen plus the clean energies yet to be discovered, commercialised and deployed.”
He has been quoted by the state-run news WAM agency as saying that the UAE was approaching COP28 “with a strong sense of responsibility and the highest possible level of ambition”.
“We will bring a pragmatic, realistic and solutions-oriented approach that delivers transformative progress for climate and for low-carbon economic growth.”
At the start of UN climate conferences, delegates have a chance to approve the president nominated by the host country. The nominee is normally unanimously confirmed, and that could easily be the case with Sultan Al Jaber this time.
“People should not see him just as an evil producer of greenhouse gases,” Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, lead climate negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Congo and a former head of the African group at climate conferences told the BBC.
“They should also see what he has been doing in the world of renewables. He understands both fossil fuels and decarbonisation and how we can make the transition to renewables.”
US presidential envoy John Kerry tweeted that Mr Al Jaber’s “unique combination” of roles would “help bring all of the necessary stakeholders to the table to move faster and at scale”.
India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar tweeted his congratulations to Mr Al Jaber, saying: “Your comprehensive experience of energy and climate change bodes well for a successful COP28.”
Countries that have had to slow down their transition to clean energy because of the battering their economies have taken in the Covid pandemic, will understandably not make an issue of Mr Al Jaber’s appointment.
Nor will countries that have increased their use of coal – one of the dirtiest fuels – in an attempt to use less Russian gas. Others have spent huge sums building infrastructure to import liquefied natural gas, which suggests plans to continue their dependence on fossil fuels for years to come.
When in 2012 Qatar hosted COP18 it nominated its energy minister, Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, as president – and he was not contested.
On the other hand, the climate crisis is treated now with greater urgency than it was 11 years ago.
The world has already warmed by 1.1C compared to the pre-industrial period and scientists say the impact of this, including extreme weather events, is already “alarming”.
Several oil and gas exporting countries in the Middle East have been criticised during past COPs for not helping to take ambitious decisions to cut down global carbon emissions.
There was criticism last year that hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists were allowed to attend COP27 in Egypt, and the final decision – which only mentioned phasing down the use of coal, and not all fossil fuels – was regarded by many delegations as a disappointment.
So climate activists, already alarmed by the choice of Mr Jaber will be watching COP28, which starts on 30 November, extremely closely. And if there is not significant progress in reducing emissions, criticism of the UN climate process will mount.