The world’s most important climate change summit is being hosted in Dubai—which is a leading oil producer. The president is the owner of Abu Dhabi’s biggest oil company—and he’s now been caught using the summit to cut deals on the side. Shabaash!
Researched by: Rachel John and Anannya Parekh
First, the basic deets
What is COP: COP is shorthand for the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change—an annual meeting of countries which meet to craft a shared strategy to save the planet. One such meeting—COP21—resulted in the Paris Agreement—which was the first to set the goal of limiting global warming to below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C. COP28 will kick off on November 30 in Dubai—with 167 world leaders in attendance.
Why it matters: Right now—given the current pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions—we are on track for an average 2.7°C temperature rise this century! So there was immense pressure on this conference to come up with a plan for immediate and drastic action. COP is the only platform that offers any hope or opportunity for coordinated global action—which is essential to avert catastrophic global warming. As one leading activist puts it: “If you didn’t have COP, you would need to invent it, because you need people to come together every year and talk about climate.”
NDCs defined: This shared strategy requires each country to define and commit to their Nationally Determined Contributions—their individual national plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris Agreement goals.
Aiming for net zero: The term ‘net zero’ refers to the difference between the amount of greenhouse gases produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We reach net zero when what we add is equal to what we take out. And if the world hits that target by 2050, we can restrict global warming to 1.5°C.
Point to note: The last summit—COP27—resulted in a big breakthrough: the first ever fund for climate damage for vulnerable countries. And a big disappointment: no real commitment to phase out the use of fossil fuels—which creates all that damage.
COP28 problem #1: Location, location, location
The toughest talks at COP28 may focus on the future role of fossil fuels, and whether countries should commit to start phasing out the use of CO2-emitting coal, oil and gas. Countries agreed at COP26 to phase down the use of coal, but they have never agreed to quit all fossil fuels - the main source of planet-warming emissions.
Really? The UAE? Unsurprisingly, climate change activists are sceptical about achieving this goal at a summit whose host is the seventh largest producer of oil. With a population of just 9.9 million, it has the sixth highest amount of emissions per person. And its economy is entirely reliant on oil revenue: “The UAE’s hydrocarbon sector makes up a quarter of GDP, half of the country’s exports and 80% of government revenues.”
More damaging is this: The UAE has shown little signs of slowing down—despite its claim to be a green energy pioneer. Yes, the country has ambitious plans for solar expansion and green hydrogen production. It is also the only Gulf country that has pledged to achieve zero emissions by 2045. But the UAE is also ramping up its oil production:
Its ambition is to provide the world with oil for as long as there might be demand… like many other petro states, its investments into renewables and other sustainable projects are dwarfed by what it is putting into fossil fuel extraction and carbon-capture technology that could prolong the use of fossil fuels for decades to come. In short, the UAE is pushing for a green world that can still have its oil.
That is entirely at odds with COP’s stated goal of eliminating staying at or below the 1.5°C threshold:
A UN assessment last year showed countries current policies would lead to 11% increase in emissions by 2030 from 2010 levels, while a reduction of nearly 43% from 2019 levels is needed, scientists say, if the target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is to be met.
Point to note: The UAE’s plans to go green are also undermined by its record of breaking its own rules. Example: Flaring:
Flaring is the burning of extracted gas that is not captured and sold, and it has been called “wasteful and polluting” by the World Bank. Flaring occurs when no equipment has been installed to capture it or when gas has to be unexpectedly released for safety reasons. Flaring also allows the escape of some unburned methane gas, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.
The UAE has banned ‘routine flaring’ for 20 years. Yet satellite data shows flaring on at least 97% of days from 2018 to 2022—in at least some of the fields.
COP28 problem #2: Sultan Al Jaber
He was appointed as the president of COP28 by the UAE government. But Al Jaber is also the head of the state oil company Adnoc—which stands for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Adnoc pumped 2.7 million barrels of oil per day in 2021—and it has plans to double production to five million barrels per day by 2027. According to a Guardian analysis, Adnoc has the “third biggest net-zero-busting plans, after Saudi Aramco and QatarEnergy.”
Quote to note: One climate activist says, "It is the equivalent of appointing the CEO of a cigarette company to oversee a conference on cancer cures."
Al Jaber’s position: Al Jaber also heads the UAE’s renewable energy company Masdar—and he sees oil as a necessary bridge for the transition to a greener future:
The world needs maximum energy… minimum emissions. The world needs all the solutions it can get. It is oil and gas and solar, and wind and nuclear, and hydrogen plus the clean energies yet to be discovered, commercialised and deployed.
The COP president says the UAE’s approach is "pragmatic, realistic and solutions-oriented.” To simply shut down oil production asap is dangerous and unrealistic.
But, but, but: Climate experts say fossil fuel companies like Adnoc show few signs of planning for any kind of “transition.” The industry has spent $170 billion exploring new gas reserves since 2021—and most are planning new gas pipelines and plants:
The UN warned… that fossil fuel producers were planning expansions that would blow the planet’s carbon budget twice over. Experts called the plans “insanity” and said they “throw humanity’s future into question”. A long series of scientific studies has concluded that most existing oil, gas and coal reserves need to remain in the ground to tackle the climate emergency but major fossil fuel companies and petrostates have yet to stop exploring for more.
COP28 problem #3: A serious conflict of interest
A BBC News investigation published yesterday shows that these suspicions may be well-justified. Internal documents reveal that the UAE and Adnoc are using the summit to cut oil and gas deals with other countries.
The meetings: As COP President, Al Jaber held meetings with at least 27 foreign governments ahead of the summit. FYI: “Meeting representatives of foreign governments is one of the core responsibilities of COP presidents. It is the president's job to encourage countries to be as ambitious as possible in their efforts to cut emissions.”
The “talking points”: included in the internal memos for these appointments include:
- Letting Chinese officials know that Adnoc is “willing to jointly evaluate international LNG [liquefied natural gas] opportunities” in Mozambique, Canada and Australia.
- Persuade the Brazilian environment minister to help with a petrochemical deal.
- Telling a Colombian minister that Adnoc "stands ready" to support Colombia to develop its fossil fuel resources.
- In fact, there are similar talking points for 13 other countries, including Germany and Egypt—telling them Adnoc wants to work with their governments to “develop fossil fuel projects.”
- Adnoc even advised oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela that "there is no conflict between the sustainable development of any country's natural resources and its commitment to climate change."
As a COP president you should not represent any national or commercial interest, it is your job to lead the world,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the president of the COP20 summit in Lima in 2014. “You can’t represent the interests of a country or a business because it will undermine confidence and trust in the presidency.”
The BBC investigation has sparked immediate outrage:
“I can’t believe it,” António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, said at a news conference Monday. The UAE had been “caught red-handed,” Christiana Figueres, a former United Nations diplomat posted on X. “At this point we might as well meet inside an actual oil refinery,” said Joseph Moeono-Kolio, lead adviser to the campaign for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, an advocacy network.
The UAE response: has been dismissive: “The UAE team did not deny using COP28 meetings for business talks, and said ‘private meetings are private’.”
The bottomline: When it comes to climate change, the only ones we’re fooling are ourselves. That includes countries, companies and citizens.
You can read all about the investigation over at BBC News or check out the more detailed version by Centre for Climate Reporting. Washington Post and The Conversation have more on Adnoc and the UAE’s mixed record on fossil fuels. Also read: Associated Press on the oil industry’s non-existent plans to curb expansion. BBC News looks specifically at Al Jaber. CNN reports on attempts to greenwash the Dubai conference.