An unavoidable tension surrounds this year’s United Nations-sponsored climate talks in November: they will take place in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, and the main role in the talks will be played by the man who heads the national oil company.
The executive, Sultan al-Jaber, and other Emirati representatives have argued they have a “pioneering” plan to fight climate change by welcoming oil and gas companies from around the world to participate more fully in the talks . In other words, invite the producers of the fuels that cause most of global warming as key players in developing a plan to slow warming.
In an interview, Majid al-Suwaidi, an Emirati diplomat who will also play a major role in the climate talks, known by the acronym COP28, said: “We need to engage the people who have the technical knowledge, the skills, the technology — and for that matter the people who create jobs — in a conversation about how they transform.”
For activists who have been attending these conferences for years, that idea sounds far-fetched. “It’s like tobacco lobbyists need to be kept out of conversations about cancer prevention,” said Catherine Abreu, head of Destination Zero, a network of nonprofits working on climate issues.
The conference takes place against the backdrop of resurgent fossil fuel investment after a brief dip in the pandemic era. Energy use from fossil fuels is responsible for more than two-thirds of global emissions.
Over the past year, the world’s largest producers — places like the United States, Saudi Arabia, Norway and the Emirates — approved dozens of massive new drilling projects. This month, the Emirates received long-sought permission from OPEC, the coalition of oil-producing countries that coordinates production and prices, to pump more oil from next year. ADNOC, the oil company headed by Mr. al-Jaber, is investing billions in meeting those new goals.
In a recent speech, Mr. al-Jaber, who also chairs the Emirates’ largest renewable energy company, said he hoped COP28 would deliver on a collective pledge to triple renewable energy by 2030, which he said was part of a transition to “an energy supply” . system that is completely free of fossil fuels.”
As is the case with much of the pithy work of ironing out global agreements on technical issues, much of what is seen as progress for climate activists boils down to seemingly minute details, such as the use of the word “reduction” in Mr. -Jaber’s speech.
It’s a word echoed by other powerful actors in the climate arena, such as former United States Senator John Kerry, the United States’ climate envoy. And its use implies to some that these leaders view climate goals and continued fossil fuel production as compatible, as long as the technology to capture their emissions is widely deployed. That kind of massive technology rollout is many years away in the brightest of scenarios.
“Fossil fuel interests are actively working to co-opt our imaginations,” Ms Abreu said. “Governments can now envision a geoengineered planet more easily than an outgrowth of renewables that already exist.”
Before this year, the COP process was already going through a credibility crisis. Despite warnings from top climate scientists, many of the conference’s greatest achievements on paper – for example, promises by rich countries to make enough money available for poorer countries to cope with a climate crisis in which they played little part – are in reality much shortage.
Negotiators from small island nations, Latin America and Africa have been joined by European Union negotiators who have called for the conference to reach an agreement on a “phasing out” of fossil fuels. But they are meeting fierce resistance from representatives from producing countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.
With regard to a phase-out, Mr. al-Suwaidi that he hoped this COP would be “about what we are building, what we are scaling up, what we are accelerating, not what we are taking away from the people”.
This year’s COP will take place in the Emirates as the United Nations’ climate body alternates hosts between five world regions. The representatives of the nations to that body endorsed by consensus the choice of the Asia-Pacific region for the Emirates. The expected juxtaposition of fossil fuel companies alongside negotiators and activists calling for their elimination will be stronger than ever, and suspicion between the two sides is high.
In recent weeks, ostensibly automated Twitter accounts promoting the Emirates’ climate credentials have sparked a flurry of content on the platform, leading activists to claim “greenwashing.” A COP28 spokesperson said he was aware of “fake bot Twitter accounts” and that they were “generated by outside actors” and “clearly designed to discredit COP28”.
The distrust threatens to further undermine the COP process, says Tom Evans, climate policy advisor at think tank E3G. It likely distracts from the failures of the industrialized countries that contribute the vast majority of climate-warming emissions and continue to delay what he said was urgent action for emissions reductions.
“More generally, what is really important is a lack of leadership, of powerful countries that are champions and create the conditions for success,” he said. “Instead, we have a vacuum.”
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.