COP28 UAE Presidency | Why are Western lawmakers opposing Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber’s appointment?

Asking to replace Mr. al-Jaber, over 100 U.S. and EU lawmakers said last month that the climate negotiation process could be “severely jeopardised” by the UAE Minister’s leadership

June 21, 2023 07:11 pm | Updated June 22, 2023 05:16 pm IST

File photo: The Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and COP28 UAE President-Designate, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, attends a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on the second day of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, Germany, May 3, 2023.

File photo: The Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and COP28 UAE President-Designate, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, attends a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on the second day of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, Germany, May 3, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Almost a week after the United Nations’ crucial climate meetings in Bonn, Germany from June 5 to 15, which are considered the halfway mark to the COP climate summit in November, questions over the COP28 Presidency of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Industry Minister Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber still remain. While the UAE leader did say in Bonne that COP28 was going to be “inclusive” and deliver a “game-changing outcome” to tackle climate change, he did not talk about a concrete plan to phase out fossil fuels or address his links to the fossil fuel industry.

Each year, the host country for the Conference of Parties (COP) summit nominates a president to helm the climate negotiations with almost 200 countries. The UAE announced Mr. al-Jaber, the State oil company CEO, as its pick in January, a move that has faced backlash from Western lawmakers, leaders of some countries, as well as civil society groups.

Notably, more than 130 lawmakers from the United States and the European Parliament last month wrote a letter to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. President Joe Biden asking them to urge the UAE to withdraw its appointment of Mr. al-Jaber as the COP28 President. They argued that the move could risk undermining the climate negotiations and asked the world leaders to help restore “public faith in the COP process severely jeopardised by having an oil company executive at the helm.”

Who is Sultan al-Jaber?

Mr. al-Jaber, who is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) since 2016, was appointed as UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology in 2020, a new department established that year.

The leader, who has a chemical engineering and economics background, was serving as a Minister of State in the UAE government since 2013. Also in 2020, he was for the second time appointed as the UAE’s special envoy for climate change, a role previously held by him from 2010 to 2016.

The Minister is also serving in a contrasting role, as the Chairman of Masdar, a renewable energy firm in Abu Dhabi, which he helped start in 2006. According to the BBC, Masdar is now active in more than 40 countries and has invested in mainly solar and wind power projects of a total capacity of 15 gigawatts, which it notes, is capable of displacing more than 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

In July 2020, Mr. al-Jaber was also appointed Chairman of the Emirates Development Bank, which according to his Ministry’s website, provides financial services for the sustainable economic and social development of the UAE.

The Guardian reported late last month that Mr. al-Jaber’s team was being accused of attempting to “greenwash” his image. It emerged that members of his team had edited Wikipedia pages that talked about his role as CEO of ADNOC; they were accused of inserting a quote from a Bloomberg editorial that said he was “precisely the kind of ally the climate movement needs.”

Why is Sultan al-Jaber’s appointment as the COP28 president facing criticism?

Climate campaigners and groups have been voiced their discontent with the appointment of an oil executive to head a summit responsible for brokering global partner negotiations to mitigate climate change and build a framework to meet the ​​countries’ pledge at the 2015 summit in Paris to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as against pre-industrial levels.

Also read | Explained: Why is the 1.5 degree Celsius target critical?

Scientists are near-unanimous that carbon emissions need to be halved by 2030 and ‘net zero’ emissions reached mid-century if the goal has to be achieved. Another agreement within the scientific community and many world leaders is that reducing the production and use of fossil fuel resources— coal, oil and gas— is the way to meet the promises of the Paris Agreement.

However, as the CEO of the state oil firm ADNOC, Mr. al-Jaber’s 2030 strategy for the firm is to build a more “profitable upstream, more valuable downstream and more sustainable and economic gas supply,” which essentially means more fossil fuels.

Critics, like Michael Bloss, a German member of the European Parliament and one of the 133 lawmakers who signed the open letter, argue that the appointment was “a scandal” and a “perfect example of a conflict of interest.” A member of the German Green Party says, “It’s like putting the tobacco industry in charge of ending smoking.”

“The decision to name as president of COP28 the chief executive of one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies—a company that has recently announced plans to add 7.6 billion barrels of oil to its production in the coming years, representing the fifth largest increase in the world— risks undermining the negotiations,” says the letter by lawmakers to Mr. Biden and Ms. Von der Leyen. The signatories also include the likes of U.S. senator Bernie Sanders, veteran Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others.

The letter pointed out how “at least 636 lobbyists from the oil and gas industries registered to attend last year’s COP—an increase of more than 25% over the previous year.” While the number of attendees representing the fossil fuel industry was largelast year, there are concerns about increased space for such interests at the upcoming summit, considering the new leadership.

According to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), ADNOC pumped 2.7 million barrels of oil per day in 2021 and has ambitious plans. It is vying to nearly double its daily output to five million barrels by 2027 — a deadline which was moved forward from 2030 this year by Mr. al-Jaber.

“We are an emerging upstream company… with a mandate to stay focused on exploring the UAE’s undeveloped oil and gas potential,” the official website of ADNOC reads. Experts also highlight that it is in the UAE’s national interest to continue the production of fossil fuels as the 10th largest oil producers in the world and as a historic member of the influential OPEC+ oil cartel of countries.

Why has Mr. al-Jaber’s advocacy of carbon capture been criticised?

World leaders have faced a dilemma about the best approach to meet international climate goals, with some pushing for a phaseout of fossil fuels as the way to go while others insist on oil and gas continuing to play a role in the future, provided their emissions are somehow curbed. Mr. al-Jaber belongs to the latter school of thought.

Climate campaigners and scientists have expressed caution that technologies proposed so far to capture fossil fuel emissions have not been tested at scale. They also argue that responses do not hit at the root cause of the problem and look at post facto containment once emissions are released, pointing out that they could also divert attention and resources from effective alternatives such as renewable energy.

However, Mr. al-Jaber has talked about the need to tackle fossil fuel emissions, a stand that observers say mark his inclination to industry interest. He has said that the goal should be a global system “free of unabated fossil fuels.” The term ‘abated’ relates to approaches used in reducing or capturing greenhouse gas emissions that result from the burning of fossil fuels.

At the Bonn talks this week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock emphasised that the proposal to tackle emissions shouldn’t take away from the need to drastically cut fossil fuel use, a position shared by other European nations and vulnerable island states where sea levels are rising making them extremely vulnerable to climate impacts.

Stakeholders like Denmark’s climate minister, Dan Jørgensen, say that carbon capture and storage technologies his country is testing in the North Sea should only be restricted to sectors where cutting emissions is extremely hard, such as the cement industry.

Meanwhile, the UAE, while having backed the idea of significantly boosting wind and solar power, has made clear that it wants to keep fossil fuels as an option for the foreseeable future. Mr. al-Jaber said his country wants “a comprehensive, holistic approach to an energy transition that included all sources of energy.”

“We know that fossil fuel will continue to play a role in the foreseeable future, helping meet global requirements so our aim should be a focus on ensuring that we phase out emissions from all sectors whether it’s oil and gas or high emitting industries,” he said. “In parallel, we should assert all effort and all investments in renewable energy and clean technology space.”He did however say that the phasedown of fossil fuels was “inevitable” while stopping short of advocating a complete ban.

More than 80 countries backed efforts to put oil and gas, not just coal, on notice at the last U.N. climate summit in Egypt. Meanwhile, the U.S and U.K. backed Mr. al-Jaber’s Presidency. Many stakeholders argue that having all voices at the table, including a decisive figure from the oil industry, can make negotiations more concrete and realistic. Developing nations like Bangladesh and the Maldives have also said that fossil fuel-dependent economies are critical to climate negotiation and mitigation efforts, and that they have a more difficult task defining their energy transition strategy.

They are banking on Mr. al-Jaber to help secure climate investments supported by sovereign wealth funds and multilateral development banks. They argue that for the poorer and developing countries, curtailing economic growth is not an option while the rich and developed countries continue to pollute. India, which has been an advocate of climate justice, has also supported Mr. al-Jaber’s appointment.

What plans has Mr. al-Jaber highlighted to tackle climate change as the COP28 President?

While not offering a concrete framework so far, Mr. al-Jaber has emphasised that the summit in Dubai will be “inclusive,” while concerns about greenwashing and freedom for young activists and campaigners in the gulf country during the summit exist.

While taking the immediate phaseout of fossil fuels off the table, Mr. al-Jaber has reiterated the need to double down on renewables. He said in a speech this year that “reaching net zero will deliver the biggest market transformation, greatest economic and human promise since the first Industrial Revolution,” adding that this could be done by tapping into the renewables market.

Supporting the idea that developing nations, while vulnerable to climate change, have their economic and development priorities fulfil, Mr. al-Jaber said one of the important focuses of the negotiations would be to get funds from bigger nations and funding from multilateral development banks, institutions, and to activate already existing corpus funds to which nations have pledged.

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