The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been repeatedly criticised since winning its bid to hold the COP28 climate summit later this year, particularly for its ongoing dependence on oil and gas to sustain its economy. While some say it is vital that the oil powers requiring the most diversification to survive without fossil fuels, such as the UAE, be closely involved in the global climate talks, others are condemning the decision. Environmentalists worldwide worry that the UAE will not take COP28 seriously and will undermine the progress being made at the annual climate conference. And now that the UAE is suggesting that a major oil and gas representative run the summit, it is receiving even more criticism. So, will COP28 help advance climate aims or be detrimental to the green transition?
The UAE was clear from the outset that if COP28 was to be held there that oil and gas companies should be closely involved, suggesting that including them in the discussion is the only way to bring about meaningful change in the energy sector. Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology suggested, early last year, that “We can’t simply unplug from the energy system of today and we can’t do this with a flip of a switch. We need to include the energy experts in the consultations and the discussions and we need to make economic systems work more efficiently with much less carbon.”
This decision is not surprising, as the UAE earns a high proportion of its revenue from oil and gas, as OPEC’s third-largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The government has set an ambitious target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, while also striving to raise its crude output to 5 million bpd by 2030, from less than 4 million at present. The decision to include oil and gas firms in the climate summit reflects the balance that the government is trying to strike between climate policy progress and the ongoing production of oil and gas.
And now, this month, the UAE stated that the leader of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) will head COP28. Climate activists around the world criticised leaders at COP27 for giving too much involvement to oil and gas representatives, suggesting that it undermined the fundamental aims of the summit. Lisa Schipper, the lead author of the 2022 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate adaptation, stated “Putting an oil CEO in charge of the negotiations for COP28 is clearly a conflict of interest.”
However, Sultan Al Jaber, head of ADNOC, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and the UAE’s climate envoy, believes that the inclusion of major oil and gas representatives will help encourage energy firms to take the climate situation more seriously and participate in the green transition. Further, he has experience in green energy as the founder of the renewable energy company Masdar and has overseen the acceleration of ADNOC’s low-carbon growth strategy in 2022.
The decision to give a leading role in the climate discussion to oil and gas companies has met a mixed response from different powers around the globe. Denmark has offered its support to the UAE over its decision to appoint Jaber as head of the talks, suggesting that oil and gas powers are key to a green transition. Dan Jorgensen, Denmark’s minister for global climate policy and development, explained “If we are to stay below 1.5 degrees in temperature increase, it is totally necessary that we have a transition of all societies on this planet, also the oil-producing ones.”
A COP28 spokesperson responded to the criticism by stating that Jaber “is an energy expert and founder of one of the world’s leading renewable energy companies, a senior business leader, government minister and climate diplomat with more than 20 years of experience of taking climate action” and that “he is uniquely qualified to deliver a successful COP28.”
Jaber has been seen to take a hard stance on climate change, stating: “We don’t need to wait for the global stocktake to know what it will say. We are way off track,” he said at the time. “The world is playing catch-up when it comes to the key Paris goal of holding global temperatures down to 1.5 degrees. And the hard reality is that, in order to achieve this goal, global emissions must fall 43 percent by 2030.”
However, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg attracted global attention this month for calling the decision “completely ridiculous.” At the World Economic Forum in Davos, she stated, “Lobbyists have been influencing these conferences since forever, and this just puts a very clear face to it… it’s completely ridiculous.” Other activists at the Forum agreed with Thunberg, suggesting that the UAE choice reflects the Egyptian government’s decision to involve oil and gas in COP27 and the direction in which the discussion is headed, favouring fossil fuel-producing companies.
The UAE is facing criticism from around the world for its involvement in COP28 and its decision to appoint an oil and gas leader as head of the summit discussions. Yet, opinions are divided over whether the inclusion of oil and gas representatives in the climate talks is positive or negative. On the one hand, energy firms are key to a successful green transition, on the other, if oil and gas representatives are given the stage, they could advocate for the continuation of fossil fuel production.