The UAE is not the first kerosene state to host the UN climate conference COP, nor the first authoritarian regime. Sultan al-Jaber, the oil executive he picked as president of this year’s COP28 meeting in Dubai, is also not the first in the role to have spent years promoting his nation’s fossil fuel interests. But the depth of dissatisfaction over the UAE’s handling of COP28 raises questions about whether it is up to the job.
With just over five months until the start of the meeting, Abu Dhabi has much more to do to quell the concerns that led more than 130 US and EU lawmakers last month to call for Jaber’s removal. The lawmakers’ move reflects broader public concern. Jaber is supposed to supervise COP28 simultaneously with the operation of one of the world’s largest oil and gas groups, the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Adnoc, which last year accelerated plans increase oil production capacity.
The conflict is obvious. To keep global warming to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 C target, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by almost half by 2030. words of the authoritative UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there must be a “substantial reduction” in the use of fossil fuels, which account for more than 75 percent of these emissions.
With warming already over 1.1°C and increasingly visible signs of heatwaves, floods and raging bushfires, time is running out. Scientists believe temperatures could exceed the 1.5°C mark in at least one of the next five years – a prospect that would have seemed shocking not so long ago.
After a dismal COP27 in Egypt last year, the UAE got off to a good start. It hired a group of Western climate experts and consultants to work on COP28. She championed the important agenda item of “global stocktaking” of progress towards the Paris goals aimed at initiating new climate action. She arranged for the meeting and its expected 70,000 attendees to be hosted in one huge Dubai convention center. Normally visitors have to scramble in and out of several places.
Even his unwise choice of an oilman as COP president made visceral sense. Jaber has COP experience and was the founding CEO of the UAE’s renewable energy group, Masdar, years before green energy became mainstream in the oil-rich Gulf. Optimists saw it as a chance to use Adnoc’s power to push all oil producers to meaningfully decarbonize.
There were also hopes that he could chart a path to boost climate finance. But that required considerable diplomatic skills on the part of the demanding Jaber, whose COP28 team has parted ways with at least three international communications agencies over the past year.
He also alarmed some climate diplomats last month when he spoke of the necessity shear fossil fuel emissions, do not use. This reflects long-standing calls from the oil and gas industry to step up carbon capture technology, which in reality must play a small role, not a major role, in the immediate effort to curb emissions. New concerns arose when the UAE invited Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to a COP already strained by geopolitical tensions.
Although Jaber said at pre-COP28 talks in Bonn last week that “the fossil fuel phase-out is inevitable”, he failed to specify a timeline. Most importantly, he did not explain the UAE’s plan to ensure that the Dubai COP makes progress that has eluded many of its predecessors. This plan must drastically accelerate an orderly, fair and, above all, rapid global transition away from fossil fuels, which are at the heart of the climate problem, not just their emissions. It must be published as soon as possible. The world cannot afford another wasted COP.