The UAE’s COP28 finesse

Summary: with the appointment of the boss of the UAE’s national oil company to head up COP28, critics say it’s a sell out to big oil interests while others argue the choice of Sultan al-Jaber is a shrewd and positive move.

The choice of Sultan al-Jaber as president of COP 28  which convenes in Dubai in November has provoked a predictable howl of outrage from climate change activists. He is after all the CEO of ADNOC, one of the world’s largest energy corporations and one with a very large global carbon footprint. Is it not, activists argue, yet another example of putting the fox into the hen house?

Tasneem Essop is the executive director of Climate Action Network, a global umbrella organisation with over 1800 member organisations in 130 countries. She was blunt in her assessment of al-Jaber’s appointment: “he cannot preside over a process that is tasked to address the climate crisis with such a conflict of interest, heading an industry that is responsible for the crisis itself.”

Others take a far more benign view pointing to al- Jaber’s long time engagement in promoting sustainable clean energy. In 2009 he was appointed to the UN Advisory Group on Energy, he is the UAE’s special envoy for climate change and the driving force behind Masdar City, intended to be a carbon neutral hub developing and promoting renewables.

Karim Elgendy, an associate fellow in Chatham House’s Environment and Society programme argues that the appointment is precisely what is needed as the threat of global warming grows ever more severe: “The choice of Dr Sultan is absolutely representative of the UAE’s approach to climate action, which pledges to decarbonise its economy… but advocates for its moral right to export every molecule of fossil fuel.”

The view that the Gulf petro-states will have the final say in how and when the world finally disengages from oil is echoed in Saudi Arabia where the oft expressed sentiment is that the last barrel of oil pumped will be Saudi. And while experts debate when peak oil (the point where the global demand  for hydrocarbons begins a terminal decline) will begin Gulf energy corporations argue it is still a long way off.

Amin Nasser, the CEO of Aramco argues that world demand will continue to grow over several decades and that to meet that demand the Gulf will need to keep right on pumping oil. The evidence suggests he is right about that: after demand fell off in 2020 due to  COVID, it has picked up pretty much where it left off before the pandemic hit, even with much of the world’s economies in recession.

The only obvious constraint is the requirement to harness production output in such a way as to keep prices and profits at a level commensurate with the expectations of the Gulf ruling families who regard hydrocarbons as theirs to wield and from which to enrich themselves as they so choose.

The appointment of al-Jaber to preside over COP28 is a bid at a finesse: convince the world that the UAE is serious in its leadership role combatting climate change while protecting the Gulf’s global oil market share and indeed encouraging that market to increase its appetite for oil over the next twenty to thirty years. It is a high-risk strategy because, as is becoming increasingly obvious to even diehard climate change denialists, we are in an environmental crisis that grows worse by the day.

With his Masdar hat on, al-Jaber and ADNOC can argue that the UAE is a serious, albeit pragmatic leader in the battle to save the globe. There is, after all, the commitment from Masdar to increase its global output of clean energy from 20 gigawatts to 100 gigawatts by 2030. And ADNOC has said it will spend US$ 15 billion on CCS (carbon capture storage) and other green initiatives. But then the oil company al-Jabar runs is also committed to raising production from 3 million barrels per day to 5 million bpd by 2030 and is steering US$150 billion into that effort, ten times the clean energy spend.

And Masdar City which was supposed to be completed by 2016 and have 50,000 residences is still only partially finished and had in 2022 a population of 1500. Its commitment to net zero has come under scrutiny with a large degree of scepticism that it has been achieved.

Regardless of when peak oil hits, it is glaringly obvious that the world is running out of time. Where big oil should be planning a strategic retreat from hydrocarbons, it is in fact advancing on the front whilst trotting out its green agendas. Therein lies the risk for Sultan al-Jaber and the UAE, that as the clock runs down, COP28, like  Egypt’s COP 27, will fail to deliver at the point when it most urgently needs to do so.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top

Access provided by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford

Copy link