When Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democratic senator for Rhode Island, was invited to a dinner at the culmination of the COP27 climate talks in Egypt last year, he was expecting to meet some American businessmen in the region.
Instead, to his dismay, the dinner was co-hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce, a powerful lobbying group with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
“The fact that this manoeuvre was pulled at the COP in Sharm el-Sheikh left a pretty sour taste in my mouth,” says Whitehouse, who for nine years gave a weekly speech in the US Senate warning about the impending climate disaster.
So when the host nation for this year’s summit, the United Arab Emirates, appointed oil executive Sultan al-Jaber to the pivotal role of COP28 president, Whitehouse decided he had had enough.
Along with European colleagues, he orchestrated a letter to US president Joe Biden and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, calling on them to press the UAE into replacing Jaber, who is also the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. His leadership, argued more than 100 signatories last week, risked “undermining the negotiations.”
The letter is the most dramatic example yet of a growing blowback against the COP28 presidency from climate experts, lawmakers and humanitarian groups, who fear that the organising team’s ties to the fossil fuel industry will impede progress at this year’s summit in November.
The appointment was “a scandal” and a “perfect example of a conflict of interest,” says Michael Bloss, a German member of the European parliament with the Green Party, who signed the letter. “It’s like putting the tobacco industry in charge of ending smoking.”
Scientists are clear that reducing the production and use of coal, oil and gas is key to meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels.
But Jaber has instead talked about the need to tackle fossil fuel “emissions,” a distinction that analysts says is out of the industry playbook and implied using carbon capture technology, which is unproven at scale, to prolong the use of the polluting fuels.
The role of COP president is instrumental to the direction and objectives of the annual summit, which brings together world leaders, negotiators, businesses and civil society groups to seek consensus on how to address climate change.
A COP28 that lacks ambition and fails to achieve progress would feed into broader concerns about the effectiveness of the summits, following sustained criticism of COP27 — which more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend.
The deal penned in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, did not include a commitment to phasing down fossil fuels despite broad support for the idea from nations including the EU and US, following pushback from oil producing countries including Saudi Arabia.
Experts say it is too early to write off COP28, but that time is running out for the presidency to win the confidence of the international community and show it has real ambitions to make it a success.
COP presidencies must be neutral, says Alden Meyer, a senior associate at think-tank E3G: “Can the incoming president and his team rise above UAE’s own interests as a fossil fuels producer? That’s the real question.”
‘Two weeks to save COP28’
The announcement of Jaber as COP28 president in January sparked immediate anger from civil society groups, who said it was folly to expect the head of a major oil company to advocate for ambitious climate action. Under Jaber, the Adnoc board last year accelerated plans to increase oil production capacity.
The Emirates countered that Jaber had been instrumental in guiding the UAE’s adoption of renewables and launching Abu Dhabi’s clean energy company, Masdar, in 2006. Jaber remains the chair of Masdar, which has invested or committed $30bn to renewable power projects across 40 countries. But while Adnoc, which is a shareholder in Masdar, has committed $150bn in capital spending over five years to 2027, only $15bn is earmarked for “low carbon solutions” until 2030.
The appointment of Jaber was followed by a series of uncomfortable developments, including the news that the UAE had invited the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to the conference and hired a political adviser from the UK who was opposed to windfall taxes on oil and gas firms to help with communications.
The louder the criticism gets, however, the more the COP28 team is likely to dig in and go on the defensive, says one person with knowledge of the group, adding that they had been “surprised” by the level of criticism they had received.
The COP28 team did not comment on whether it considered Jaber’s dual roles a conflict of interests, but noted his 20 years working in the renewable energy sector, his experience in climate diplomacy and his role in “decarbonising, transforming and future proofing Adnoc.”
Jaber had this year “consistently called on the oil and gas sector to up its game, do more, and do it faster,” it said, and although “the phaseout of fossil fuels is inevitable . . . this will take time.”
Western leaders have stood by Jaber, in public at least. The EU’s commissioner for green policy Frans Timmermans and US climate envoy John Kerry each voiced their support for him soon after his appointment. The French diplomat Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris Agreement, wrote in May: “Who better than the UAE to demonstrate it is part of the solution? The UAE cannot afford to play it safe.”
But it is yet to show evidence of significant ambition. COP presidents typically work to build support for their ideas throughout the year, over months of careful diplomacy.
May’s Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin was expected to be a moment when the COP28 presidency outlined its vision for the summit.
Instead, Jaber told those present that fossil fuels would “continue to play a role in the foreseeable future”, and provided little detail about the team’s plans for the conference.
That worried some officials, who are looking to the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June — roughly the halfway point to COP — as the next major moment when a blueprint might come.
One developing country negotiator says it is “key” that the COP28 team set out its vision “before the summer break.”
Alex Scott, E3G’s lead for climate diplomacy, puts it more bluntly: “Jaber has two weeks to save COP28 . . . he needs to arrive in Bonn with a plan of action. It’s vital for his credibility that he meets the challenge and ensures he’s not simply seen as a defender of oil and gas interests.”
COP28 said the president had “detailed priorities multiple times” after a “listening and engagement tour” this year, including making climate finance more available and tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030.
One major focus at COP28 will be the so-called “global stocktake”, when countries will assess progress towards cutting emissions. Another key discussion will be about how a new fund to help pay for the damage done to developing nations by extreme weather events will function. And all eyes will be watching to see whether the final deal includes a commitment to phase down fossil fuels.
But Jaber’s focus on fossil fuel emissions, and the team’s early plans for a new alliance of oil and gas companies committed to reducing emissions that was widely branded as unambitious, have worried analysts.
The developing country negotiator said the focus on fossil fuel emissions was “a dangerous distraction.”
Mafalda Duarte, the incoming head of the UN’s Green Climate Fund, says Jaber was right about the need to invest in solutions such as clean energy, but questioned the focus on carbon capture technologies: “This is where the scepticism comes in.”
The need to ramp up renewables, which Jaber has stressed, was only “one side of the equation,” says Meyer. “I think they are trying to avoid having a full-blown commitment to the kind of reduction in fossil fuel production and consumption that we need to see . . . That’s going to lead to a real clash in Dubai.”
A lightning rod
Beyond the fossil fuels question, the presidency will have to navigate other difficult challenges, including how to make civil society groups feel comfortable in a country that does not allow protests.
The summit has brought the UAE’s human rights record under renewed scrutiny. Advocacy groups have called for the release of dozens of dissidents who have been detained since 2012 for demanding political reforms.
There is also the question of how western diplomats might negotiate being in the same place as the Syrian leader and his representatives, if they choose to attend. The invite, which has been widely criticised, was seen as part of a move by countries in the region to improve relations with a regime under sanctions by the UN and others for its use of chemical weapons and other alleged war crimes and acts of brutality.
How the COP28 team juggles the competing interests at the summit will be the best test of its commitment to tackling climate change, analysts say — especially as the influence of the regional powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, is expected to weigh heavily on the host.
But a COP hosted by a petrostate was always going to attract particular scrutiny, experts say. “No matter who they put up for the president, there was going to be a perception of a conflict,” says Meyer. Jaber was “a lightning rod for a much broader critique of the system.”
Behind the scenes, the UN’s climate chief Simon Stiell is working to reform the COP process to make it more transparent. Civil society groups hope changes will include a new conflict of interests policy and rules that would require COP participants to disclose climate-related lobbying.
But such ideas have been around for years, with little progress made, reportedly as a result of resistance from countries including the US and Australia.
Despite discomfort at the UAE’s hosting in some quarters, no countries are yet talking publicly about boycotting the summit. Representatives of climate vulnerable countries said it was important for them to be present.
“We look forward to being there,” says ambassador Samuelu Laloniu, a special envoy from Tuvalu, a low-lying Pacific island at risk from sea level rise. “Our absence from the discussion will not serve the interests of our islands.”
Ambassador Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Pa’olelei Luteru, the Samoan chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, says countries must attend the summit to have “a mature, productive conversation.”
“This is an issue that requires all of us to work together,” he says. “Sometimes it’s perhaps more important to engage with those that do not necessarily share your perspective.”
But that doesn’t mean ignoring the key issues at hand, adds Laloniu. “The only way to keep the [1.5C] target alive is to address the problem at the source,” and fossil fuels are “the culprit here.”
If western leaders do nothing else, says the Democratic senator Whitehouse, they must maintain close scrutiny of the UAE until November.
“The prudent step,” he says, is to pile on the pressure “to try to create the transparency and the environment where they can’t go easy on the fossil fuel industry.”
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr