“Climate activists around the world have come to the conclusion that people in authority are not doing their job,” said a visibly exasperated Al Gore at Davos, in reaction to the appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president of COP28. “The appearance of a conflict of interest [further] undermines confidence.” The Climate Reality Project, a climate activist training organisation founded and chaired by the former US vice-president, has launched a petition calling for Al Jaber to resign as head of the oil company. “You can’t move forward and backward at the same time,” it says.
Environmental groups around the world have expressed shock and horror at Al Jaber’s appointment. “Al Jaber cannot preside over a process that is tasked to address the climate crisis […] heading an industry that is responsible for the crisis,” said Tasneem Essop, head of the NGO Climate Action Network. “It is completely ridiculous,” Greta Thunberg told attendees at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.
EU Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans proffered a more positive spin. “I think people might be focusing too much on his role as CEO of an oil company,” he said. “They should look into what he has been doing over the last years. He has been leading the charge to also take the oil and gas industry into a sustainable world.” This accolade is likely related to Al Jaber’s other role as chairman of Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s flagship renewable energy initiative.
As a woman and a climate and energy journalist trying to live a fairly low-carbon lifestyle, I am not enthused by the idea of the next international climate conference being hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or the head of an oil company.
In 2019, the UAE was the world’s fourth-biggest emitter of CO2 emissions per capita behind Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, and the seventh-largest petroleum producer. The country also has an inglorious track record on women’s rights. It has made “important reforms” in recent years, said Human Rights Watch, in March 2021, “but significant discrimination against women and girls remains”. Ahead of a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in July 2022, the NGO wrote that: “Within the UAE, activists, lawyers, teachers, students, and those deemed critics are arrested, prosecuted, and detained, women and LGBT people face discrimination, and domestic workers are exposed to significant abuse.”
When a friend texted me to say “what a joke” at Al Jaber’s nomination, my gut reaction was to agree. Yet, on closer reflection, rather than NGOs and others pushing back against Al Jaber’s appointment and calling for fossil fuel companies to be “kicked out” of COP, perhaps this is the moment when the world changes.
The COP process in its current form is broken. There is doubtless merit in getting all countries together once a year to bang heads and share practical ways of slashing emissions, yet it seems unlikely that the best way to stop humanity from “committing suicide by proxy” is to argue for two weeks about how much each country should cut emissions.
“Countries could volunteer to host a COP because of their interest in moving global cooperation on climate change forwards,” writes Simon Sharpe, a member of the UK’s COP26 team, in his book Five Times Faster, to be published in February. “Equally, they could do so in order to hold it back… or they could do it to prove their relevance on the international stage.”
I am not privy as to why the UAE wants to host COP28, but the uncomfortable truth is that while countries and companies focused on fossil fuel production and export are the problem as far as climate change is concerned, they also have to be part of the solution. Al Jaber’s insights into both the oil and the renewables industries could speed up the end of fossil fuels and fast-forward the clean energy transition if he and the UAE chose to truly invest in creating a “transformational shift” in line with climate science, pushed along by the UN.
The UNFCCC, under whose aegis the COP sits, is said to be “asking questions” about potential links between the COP28 presidency and the oil industry. Rather than remaining in the background, the body should be much bolder and braver in managing its climate conferences and calling out instances of malpractice or lobbying. In conjunction with member countries, it should reconsider exactly what COPs are supposed to achieve and how they can best be run to meet this goal. Progressive governments, businesses and activists should work together to report on rogue counterparts and not hide behind laggards to allow business-as-usual to continue.
“We are flirting with climate disaster,” UN chief António Guterres told Davos, placing the blame squarely on the fossil fuel industry. “Certain fossil fuel producers were fully aware in the 1970s that their core product was baking our planet,” he said, alluding to new analysis by Harvard researchers showing how ExxonMobil scientists accurately predicted global warming impacts, yet continued to lobby against climate action. “Just like the tobacco industry, they rode rough-shod over their own science,” said Guterres. “Big Oil peddled the big lie – and like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account.”
It is up to all of us to hold fossil fuel companies to account for their past actions, and for their present policies and future plans. Al Jaber could do worse than follow the call from She Changes Climate and appoint a woman, ideally from the renewables sector, as co-president of COP28.