An Oil Exec Running COP? This Isn't A Joke
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Greta Thunberg once summed up world leaders’ empty climate promises with the words “Blah blah blah.” After the appointment of an oil executive as president of COP28, they will ring true to many climate advocates all over again.
The United Arab Emirates, host of the United Nations climate summit this year, has named Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE’s minister of industry and technology, as COP28 president. Al Jaber is also the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC), the world’s 12th-largest oil company by production, and chairman of Masdar, the UAE’s state-owned renewable energy company.
If there’s anything that encapsulates the conflict at the heart of the Middle East’s stance on climate — the belief that you can pump oil and reduce emissions at the same time — it is Al Jaber’s resume.
The appointment has sparked concern among climate advocates that Al Jaber’s conflicts of interest will stymie commitments bold enough to avoid 1.5C of warming, a target the UN secretary general described as “gasping for breath.” Carbon emissions must fall by half within the next seven years if we’re going to have a chance of meeting it.
The controversy follows COP27 in Egypt, another major fossil-fuel exporter, where a steep rise in attendance by oil and gas lobbyists provoked criticism and suspicion. There are arguments for not sidelining such parties at climate talks; they must also commit to decarbonizing, after all. But it’s hard to sell an acting oil CEO as an honest broker in the debate. And trust will be vital in forging a global consensus.
Al Jaber does have green credentials. He’s been the UAE’s special climate envoy since 2010 and was the founding CEO of Masdar. It has ambitions to be the biggest green-energy company in the world, working toward 100 gigawatts of renewable capacity by 2030. Part of his mandate at ADNOC, which has a 24% stake in Masdar, is to drive the oil giant’s $15 billion decarbonization strategy.
Yet under Al Jaber’s leadership, ADNOC plans to increase its oil production to 5 million barrels a day by 2027 from 3 million. This jibes with the UAE climate envoy office’s views on the energy transition. It doesn’t see climate action as a matter of flipping a switch on fossil fuels. With energy demand increasing, some see natural gas and oil as a way to bridge the gap and maintain energy security while renewable infrastructure is put into place.
In a statement on his COP28 appointment, Al Jaber says he’ll bring “a pragmatic, realistic and solutions-orientated approach” to the annual gathering. It might be pragmatic, but it still sets the pace for change — which scientists agree needs to be rapid — to slow. And many stakeholders will not see “more oil” as a reasonable solution, especially when the president setting the COP agenda has a commercial interest in growing his oil business for years to come.
Between being a government minister, CEO, chairman and now president for COP28, Al Jaber is doing four full-time jobs. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the president of COP27, faced criticism that he underestimated the time and effort required for the role, contributing to prolonged negotiations and a lack of bold agreements.
A spokesperson for the UAE climate envoy said Al Jaber is focused on his new role and, despite his broad portfolio, has the right people around him to help manage those responsibilities. He is also not considering resigning from his position at ADNOC.
But the UAE may have trouble convincing the world COP28 won’t be just another example of “blah blah blah” — more talk with entrenched interests limiting the action.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.
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