The Guardian view on betting the planet: a big oil producer presiding over Cop28 is a risk

01 12 2023 | 14:04Press / THE GUARDIAN

The success of this week’s UN climate summit will depend on one man who must know that a favourable result would be bad news for the industry he represents

History was made in Glasgow in 2021 when “fossil fuels” appeared in the Cop26 declaration. It was the first time they had ever been mentioned in the text of a Cop agreement – officially recognising the taproot of a human-led climate emergency. Two years is a long time in geopolitics. This year’s Cop28, which begins on Thursday in Dubai, will be presided over by Sultan Al Jaber, the chief executive of the state oil company of the United Arab Emirates, which has the largest net-zero-busting expansion plans of any fossil fuel business in the world.

It was already doubtful that Mr Al Jaber was fit to lead global climate negotiations while responsible for planet-wrecking activities. This week’s revelations that he planned to lobby on oil and gas deals during meetings with foreign governments ahead of Cop28 further damage his credibility as an honest broker in climate negotiations. Mr Al Jaber had a hard enough job without hustles making a mockery of his independence.

Despite running the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Mr Al Jaber’s appointment as Cop28’s president-designate was welcomed by the US and the EU, and backed by the G77 bloc of developing countries. Fossil fuel lobbyists have campaigned to torpedo the global climate agenda. There is something to be said for forcing them into the open to account for their actions rather than letting them operate in the shadows.

The world is not doing enough to prevent global temperatures increasing beyond the “safety” threshold of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. At last year’s climate summit, nations agreed to reduce “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. But such state handouts worldwide reached a record high of $1.7tn in 2022, emphasising the conflict between Mr Al Jaber’s day job and his role at Cop28.

In Dubai, there needs to be a shared zeal for achieving current climate targets, if not producing new, better ones. Mr Al Jaber must also seek agreement over further carbon cuts, payments for damage caused by global heating, and a fairer system of climate finance for poor nations, the majority of which comes as punitive high-cost loans.

Bridging differences will be tricky. Developed countries want Cop28’s focus to be phasing out “unabated” fossil fuels – eliminating dirty power that cannot be equipped with carbon dioxide removal technologies, the effectiveness of which is disputed. Many poor nations argue, justifiably, that to rely on unproven, expensive solutions is not only risky but also unjust.

Had the developed countries achieved the targets set under the Kyoto protocol, developing nations say they could have taken up their “fair share” of greenhouse gas emissions while transitioning away from fossil fuels. Instead, five rich countries – the US, Canada, Australia, Norway and the UK – will contribute the majority of planned expansion of new oil and gas fields through to 2050.

Cop28 is a critical moment of danger – and opportunity. It could provide a much-needed reality check and a push to upgrade the scale, and the urgency, of the actions required to keep climate goals within reach. Mr Al Jaber needs a quid pro quo, where the global south agrees not to stall – or sink – talks if the global north is held accountable for its fossil fuel-driven growth. Whether Cop28 is successful, or fails, is crucial for the planet. Its fate depends partly on Mr Al Jaber, who must know that a favourable result would be bad news for the industry he represents. Unfortunately his behaviour so far inspires more trepidation than hope.


Photograph: Kamran Jebreili/AP