COP27, the last major UN climate conference, held in the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, ended in major frustration. Its outcome was “rightly met with weak applause from weary negotiators”, freelance journalist Katie Kouchakji wrote for Energy Monitor. Aside from the agreement to establish a funding mechanism for loss and damage, no real progress was booked.

This year’s COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a petrostate – in November. On 12 January 2023, the UAE confirmed the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber as president of COP28, who, next to his role as Climate Change Special Envoy and Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), the UAE’s biggest and the world’s 12th-biggest oil producer.

Climate leaders and civil rights groups have reacted with dismay, decrying a conflict of interest and calling for Al Jaber to lay down his role as head of the oil company. One climate activist compared the appointment to putting the tobacco industry in charge of an anti-smoking treaty. Greta Thunberg called it “completely ridiculous”.

The ties between Adnoc and COP28 go further than Al Jaber. The Centre for Climate Reporting, an independent investigative group, reports that 12 out of around 70 individuals have moved directly from roles at Adnoc to the COP28 presidency. Among the former Adnoc employees are two engineers who will become negotiators at the conference, despite their LinkedIn profiles not showing a background in international climate diplomacy.

A COP28 UAE spokesperson says: “The COP28 team has been designed to provide the best diplomatic, technical and sector specific experience to ensure the COP Presidency is able to deliver on its stated objectives. The individuals who are being hired have come from a variety of backgrounds, countries and sectors."

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Meanwhile, Politico has reported that the COP28 team started out working from the same office building as the Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology – and next door to Adnoc’s headquarters. This led the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to formally question the independence of the COP28 presidency from the oil company. (As of this writing, the UNFCCC has not provided an update on this inquiry and from February, the COP28 team has worked from a separate building in a different part of the city, 'Capital Plaza Towers'.)

Al Jaber objects to the criticism and will stay on as head of the country’s oil business, the UAE has confirmed. On the website of the Climate Change Special Envoy, the government writes that it is “committed to hosting an inclusive COP which brings all perspectives to the table”.

"This inclusive approach is also reflected in the COP28 team, in which 60% are women, more than 60% are from G77 countries across 40 different nationalities, and the median age is 34," the COP28 spokesperson told Energy Monitor.

“How about for once we capitalise on everybody’s capabilities and strengths and fight climate change rather than going after each other,” Al Jaber told Reuters in response to the criticism.

Although Al Jaber heads up the UAE’s biggest oil company, his background is not exclusive to fossil fuels. He was the founding CEO of Masdar, the UAE's pioneering energy transition company that developed one of the world's largest offshore wind farms – the London Array – and negotiated climate issues as Minister of State from 2013 to 2020, when he became Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology. His wider experience in the energy industry and as a leader of the host country could see him well-placed to navigate the complexities of a low-carbon energy transition that leaves no one behind, including petrostates.

“The COP president comes from the host country, and there is no Emirati more qualified than Al Jaber,” says Steven Geiger, co-founder of Masdar and Innova Partners, a Washington, DC-based energy transition advisory company, in conversation with Energy Monitor. “It is difficult to imagine a more qualified president than an expert in clean energy, conventional energy and energy diplomacy."

”Neither the COP host nor president determine the agenda or results, the participating countries do,” he adds.

The involvement of fossil fuel interests at a COP is nothing new. At COP26, in Glasgow, there were more than 100 fossil fuel companies present in addition to 30 trade associations and membership organisations. In total, 503 delegates connected to the fossil fuel industry attended the conference.

At COP27, at least 636 fossil fuel lobbyists attended, and of the countries with fossil fuel lobbyists in their national delegation, the UAE had more than any other country, with 70 out of 1,070 delegation members being classed as ‘fossil fuel lobbyists’ by the non-profit Global Witness.

With the fossil fuel industry having a track record of working against, rather than with, climate science and mitigation, it is not difficult to understand the concerns and criticism.

Fossil fuels' track record makes for bleak climate outlook

Evidence continues to surface that the fossil fuel industry knew about climate change for decades, yet continued to lobby against it. ExxonMobil was aware of climate change almost 40 years ago, yet still spent more than $30m on climate denial groups between 1998 and 2014. TotalEnergies was aware of global warming since at least 1971, but engaged in overt denial of climate science in the 1980s and 1990s. Shell too knew about global warming for more than 30 years, yet backed a prominent Dutch climate denier in the 1990s.

More recently, researchers found that the fossil fuel industry outspends clean energy groups by 27 times, spending billions on ads and lobbying to keep fossil fuels flowing. While these companies were advertising their shift to renewables not that long ago, they are now hitting the brakes as record profits for 2022 have rolled in. BP has reduced its emissions target and is increasing spending on fossil fuel production. Shell says it will not increase investments in renewables this year and Exxon walked away from an algae biofuel project it once heavily promoted.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis, many companies argue that fossil fuels are necessary for energy security while the world transitions to clean energy.

“We must not just deliver cleaner energy, we must also deliver affordable energy, secure energy,” said BP’s CEO Bernard Looney in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in February 2023.

Others dismiss this as another strategy to deflect responsibility for climate change.

ExxonMobil portrays climate change as a "risk", rather than a reality, renewable energy as "unreliable" and the fossil fuel industry as offering "meaningful leadership" on climate change, according to a Harvard University study. By talking about fossil fuel "demand" rather than supply, it also shifts responsibility from producers to consumers, the researchers add.

In an interview with the National, a newspaper owned by the UAE’s deputy prime minister, Al Jaber used a similar rhetoric.

“You need to maintain the current system, while the world still relies on it and drive down its emissions, while driving up investments in new energies,” he said. “Innovative climate action, which involves the fast adoption of renewable energy and other low-carbon sources, has the potential to provide long-lasting energy security. But we are not there yet.”

Yet Adnoc is not merely maintaining fossil fuel production, but actively expanding it. In the next five years, the company plans to invest $150bn (Dh550.88bn) to reach its production target of five million barrels of oil per day by 2027. According to data from GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company, Adnoc has the second-highest number of upcoming upstream oil projects and production capacity targets in the Middle East. Abu Dhabi’s Upper Zakum, Lower Zakum, Umm Shaif and Belbazem expansion oil projects are at the heart of the capacity expansion plans.

According to the International Energy Agency’s latest 'World Energy Investments' report, only Middle Eastern national oil companies were planning to invest more in fossil fuels in 2022 than in 2019. Saudi Aramco, which reported record profits of $161bn in 2022, plans to boost its oil production capacity by one million barrels per day by 2027 and gas output by 50% by 2030. The same report shows that oil and gas companies were set to invest just 5% of their total spend outside ‘traditional’ areas of supply, and the vast majority of these clean energy investments came from western companies.

COP28 in a petrostate: what will Al Jaber do?

The track record of the fossil fuel industry is not encouraging for climate action. “Unfortunately most fossil fuel companies still view delay and diversion as more profitable [than renewables investment],” says Geiger. “They are sophisticated in marketing themselves as green and in transition, but… 80–90% of efforts and investment is to continue business as usual.”

On the other hand, one could argue that as a large contributor to emissions and climate change, fossil fuel companies have to be part of the solution. “Hosting COP brings great scrutiny and pressure,” says Geiger. “It is good to have that pressure on a transitioning producer who has already demonstrated outsized influence in uniting the Global South and developing worlds on climate issues.”

Geiger says the UAE should not be discounted solely based on its status as a petrostate. “Would we deny the US from hosting COP, as the world's largest oil and largest gas producer?” he asks. “We will make faster climate progress if we resist simplistic anti-oil exclusionary politics, and engage and hold accountable fossil fuel producers.”

He points to the UAE’s success in winning the bid to house the new International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters in Abu Dhabi and securing leadership of COP28 as examples of such engagement.

On the website of the Climate Change Special Envoy, the UAE points out its climate wins and “global leadership in driving international climate action”. The country was the first Middle Eastern nation to sign the Paris Agreement, the first nation in the region to submit a national climate plan to the UNFCCC, and has a history of investing in renewables.

During the CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, at the beginning of March, Al Jaber reiterated the UAE’s climate wins.

“The truth is we have been on this path for more than two decades," he said. "We have always balanced economic growth with environmental responsibility and put climate action at the heart of our development agenda. Put simply, we are not shying away from the energy transition; in fact, we are running towards it.”

He added that every government, every industry, every business and every individual has a role to play in the energy transition, and that the fossil fuel industry, in particular, is integral to the solutions and needs to up its game.

“Everyone in the industry needs to be aligned around the same goal, and we should stretch ourselves to go further,” Al Jaber said. "Why wait until 2050? Let’s scale up best practices and aim to reach net-zero methane emissions by 2030.”

Al Jaber’s words at the conference sounded promising. The UAE and fossil fuel companies could prove critics wrong. Those hopeful for radical change have to believe that the worst climate offenders have shed their shadowy past. “We should welcome COP being hosted in a major [fossil] energy producer precisely because of the additional scrutiny and contradictions it brings,” says Geiger.

Editor's note: This article was amended on 5 April to clarify that the COP28 team started out working from the same office building as the Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology but no longer does so, and to add comments from a COP28 spokesperson, received after publication.