Image from COP28 website.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 28 is set to convene from the 30th November to the 12th December in Dubai. Marking the fifth meeting of the parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement and following last year’s climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, COP 28 will mark the first time that a major climate change conference has taken place in the Arabian Peninsula. 

In a letter to parties, the incoming president of the conference, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber announced that COP 28 would focus on paradigm shifts. 

These include:

  • Fast tracking the energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030
  • Transforming climate finance, by delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance;
  • Putting nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action; and
  • Mobilising for the most inclusive COP ever.

Whether or not the final goal for the Dubai conference will come true, the diverse agenda that is set to be discussed will be dominated by a single item, oil. 

Dubai is seen by many to be one of the major ‘victors’ of globalisation. The breakneck speed of its development over the past several decades has seen what was once a sleepy fishing port transform itself into a bustling metropolis of over four million people and one of the world’s foremost centres of finance and trade. Yet, unlike its neighbours, Dubai has very little oil reserves: amounting to just 5% of the Emirate’s GDP. 

Instead, Dubai has been able to use its position between oil rich neighbours to benefit from the development in the petrochemical sector. While calls from climate activists for an international agreement on ‘phasing-out’ oil grow, it has been announced that the aforementioned President of the conference, Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber will retain his role as the head of the United Arab Emirates State Oil Company. 

Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jabar, from World Energy Council.

A Guardian Enquiry in June 2023 found that the UAE’s State Oil Company has been able to read emails to and from the COP 28 climate summit office, with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) consulted on how to respond to media enquiries. The United Nations former climate chief Christina Figueres called this approach “dangerous” and a letter to the UN from 133 US and EU politicians called for the removal of Al Jaber and “climate talks free of fossil fuel interference”.

Manon Aubry, a French MEP and one of the main signatories of the letter was quoted saying

“For billions of people, the outcome of COP28 and ensuing international climate negotiations will make the difference between life and death, chaos and solidarity.”

Yet, Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister welcomed Al Jaber’s appointment, citing his promotion of renewable energy his capacity of the chairman of Masdar. This is a renewable energy conglomerate which has invested billions of pounds in zero-emissions technologies in over 40 countries. 

In an interview, Al Jaber dismissed the role of the fossil fuel industry in the limited success of past climate summits. Instead, he attributes this to climate advocates and fossil fuel interests “vilifying” one another

“Why are we fighting industries? Fighting emissions should focus on reducing emissions across the board, whether it’s oil and gas, whether it’s industry, regardless of what it is.” 

Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber in an interview with the FT.

Image from Pre-COP meeting. Photo taken from COP28 Facebook account.

Dr Al-Jaber’s task to achieve a new consensus on oil, (that was blocked last year by major fossil fuel producers, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia) will play directly into his business interests. While he remains concurrently the president of COP 28 as well as the chief executive of ADNOC and Masdar, Al-Jaber is responsible for the construction of one of Central Asia’s largest solar farms in Uzbekistan. Although he insists that his knowledge as an ‘industry insider’ can help achieve tangible change, the question remains whether this promise is made in good faith. 

Similarly, the United Arab Emirates sees its role called into question when examining the country’s 2050 energy strategy. Despite tremendous solar potential, the Climate Action Tracker, a tool that maps countries’ adherence to their climate commitments gives the UAE an overall rating of insufficient. 

“We estimate the UAE will miss its NDC by a large margin, and it therefore needs to put in place additional policies to reduce emissions. The CAT rates the UAE’s policies and action as “Insufficient”. With less than seven years to go until 2030, the gap between the UAE’s current policies, its NDC target and a 1.5°C compatible trajectory remains worryingly large.”

Climate Action Tracker Report: United Arab Emirates.

The UAE remains one of the major investors in green technologies in West Asia, yet oil still represents 30% of the country’s budget. While this has decreased from 77% in 2011, the country plans to increase crude oil production capacity from 3.5 million barrels per day to 5.0 million in 2030. What remains is a confusing trend of juggling priorities: The UAE’s major investment in renewable energy, both at home and abroad, coupled with the expansion of the country’s fossil fuel sector and its interests internationally. 

Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad has also been invited to the conference, in a major break with other major international conferences. With Syria recently re-admitted into the Arab league, the Assad regime remains under Western sanctions. This action has only added to the controversy surrounding the host’s ‘inclusive’ agenda. Those in opposition believe Assad, who is seeking rehabilitation on the global stage, has made no changes since brutally repressing pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. 

With the presence of both Al-Assad and ADNOC representatives at the conference, a major fear is that the conference will be used as a venue for achieving the UAE’s wider foreign policy objectives while it holds the global spotlight. The host country has made concessions, like confirming that protests will be allowed. However the participation of fossil fuel companies is an unforeseen step in all other climate conferences and the effects of this momentous decision remain unseen. 

“Recent history has shown that more renewable energy does not automatically translate into less fossil fuels. COP 28 will only be a success if its presidency sets aside the interests of the oil and gas industry and facilitates a clear outcome on the need for a decline of all fossil fuel production and use, as well as a rapid phase-in of wind and solar. The only way we’ll build a new energy system that is both clean and fair is by actively phasing out the old.”

Dr Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber in his maiden speech as COP 28 President.

On October 2 2023, Sultan Al Jaber announced a 4.5 billion dollar fund to develop 15 gigawatts of clean power in Africa by the year 2030. The conference President also announced that more than 20 oil and gas companies were rallying around his calls to curb carbon emissions. Al Jaber’s ADNOC remains rife with allegations of ‘greenwashing’ despite the company effectively “leading the pack” in cleaning up its act, amongst the largely recalcitrant oil sector. ADNOC has notably halted gas flaring, pledged to eliminate all of its methane emissions by 2030 and all operational net carbon emissions by 2045.

The question remains whether Dr Jaber will be able to facilitate wide-reaching change across the sector and more broadly, whether ‘green(er)-oil’ is an acceptable middle ground for developing nations seeking to meet their commitments. The most recent IPCC data makes it clear that anything short of a commitment to phase out oil will have catastrophic consequences.

“If COP28’s main goal is to ensure we honor the commitment to 1.5°C, this can only be achieved by a commitment to stop any new fossil fuel projects from today. The UAE should do this, and the USA should do this, every country must. So-called ‘climate leaders’ need to stop using these forums as a performance stage and stop new fossil fuel projects—that is the test.”

Alex Rafalowicz, executive director of the fossil fuel Nonproliferation Treaty Initiative.

Environmental groups are intent on stressing this crucial point at the summit and not surrendering to oil interests.