Cause and Effect | COP28 runs into controversy as oil execs join advisory board - Hindustan Times

Cause and Effect | COP28 runs into controversy as oil industry chiefs join advisory board

ByTannu Jain
Nov 09, 2023 06:50 PM IST

COP president Sultan al-Jaber is an oil executive; critics say it's like appointing a tobacco honcho to head an anti-smoking treaty

The month of October was 1.7 Celsius hotter than the average pre-industrial temperatures, scientists said on Wednesday, offering a bleak outlook for the remaining two months: The year 2023 is certain to be the hottest year on record.

People flock to the Ipanema beach to beat the extreme heat in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in September. (CREDIT: AP) PREMIUM
People flock to the Ipanema beach to beat the extreme heat in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in September. (CREDIT: AP)

The assessment, barely 20 days before the COP28 climate summit, is likely to prompt experts to push for strong action at the meeting.

“The sense of urgency for ambitious climate action going into COP28 has never been higher,” said Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, with the release of the temperature data.

But, along with the temperature extremes, there is an added sense of doom going into the summit on account of the landmark event being hosted by the UAE (one of the biggest oil-producing countries in the world), Sultan al-Jaber (an oil executive and the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Corporation) being appointed the COP28 president, and the composition of the COP advisory board having four oil industry chiefs among its 30 members.

The COP28 summit is being hosted by the UAE. (CREDIT: Reuters)
The COP28 summit is being hosted by the UAE. (CREDIT: Reuters)

"...We now have a situation where COP is being led by oil interests. And then of course the agenda gets changed. They have to sell the fossil fuels," Dr Joyeeta Gupta, professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam, told HT in October.

Al Jaber’s appointment has been particularly controversial.

In a letter to US President Joe Biden, President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell, 133 officials from the US Congress and the European Parliament sought Jaber's withdrawal as COP28 president.

Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President and UAE's Special Envoy for Climate Change, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (CREDIT: AP)
Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President and UAE's Special Envoy for Climate Change, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (CREDIT: AP)

“...our profound concern that current rules governing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) permit private sector polluters to exert undue influence on UNFCCC processes," they said in the letter dated May 23.

In it, they sought “diplomatic efforts to secure the withdrawal of the President-designate of COP28”, and “immediate steps to limit the influence of polluting industries, particularly major fossil fuel industry players whose business strategies lie at clear odds with the central goals of the Paris Agreement, at gatherings of the UNFCCC”.

The experts pointed to the 636 lobbyists from the oil and gas industries that had registered to attend COP27, held last year in Egypt. Compared to COP26, there was a 25% jump in the number of lobbyists from the oil and gas industries, with the experts saying that the lobbyists could "obstruct climate action".

The calls for Jaber's ouster grew when, at the Bonn Climate Conference in June, he said: “We must be laser-focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions while phasing up viable, affordable zero-carbon alternatives.”

The addition of “emissions” to the phase-out terminology raised red flags, with experts saying that his statement reflected a focus on the use of CCS and not a phase-out of fossil fuels themselves.

The industrial backdrop of a BP refinery and a Uniper coal-fired power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (CREDIT: AP)
The industrial backdrop of a BP refinery and a Uniper coal-fired power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (CREDIT: AP)

“He said global fossil fuel emissions should be phased out. He did not say fossil fuels will be phased out. This essentially indicates that emissions from the oil and gas and other sectors will be phased out through carbon capture and storage, which is not a reliable technology, while the world continues to use and produce fossil fuels," Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, told HT in April.

More conflict of interest fears

Then there was controversy around the COP team and Jaber’s team at ADNOC using the same email servers, ADNOC officials accessing sensitive COP information, and ADNOC being consulted on COP business.

Amid the allegations, the UNFCCC secretariat sent a series of questions enquiring about whether the presidency would be independent of the oil company.

According to a report in Politico on January 22, the questions included whether there “is a firewall between the two institutions; whether ADNOC has access to COP28 meetings and strategic documents; if the staff working on the climate conference are relying on the oil giant’s IT systems; if part of the work will be devoted to protecting ADNOC's interests; and whether the climate team is being paid by the oil company”.

In its response to Politico at the time, the COP28 office said, “There are clear governance guidelines in place to ensure the team can operate entirely independently from any other entity. The funding for the team and its activities have been entirely provided by the UAE government."

Experts said the situation was “tantamount to putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty”.

“This is a truly breathtaking conflict of interest... While countries should be focusing on how to rapidly decarbonize the global economy, the COP risks becoming a festival of greenwashing, false solutions and shady fossil fuel deals, a trend that was started by the Egyptian Presidency in 2022,” said Romain Ioualalen, Global Policy manager at Oil Change International, said.

The fears were somewhat realised in the months that followed.

The UAE appointed 30 people to the advisory board, a group representing a mix of activists and researchers, former executives of oil companies, climate campaigners, energy experts and corporate leaders.

COP28 Advisory Board
COP28 Advisory Board

From India, famed environmentalist Sunita Narain and Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani were picked.

Ambani's selection, along with three other fossil fuel executives, and one banker on a fossil fuel company's board raised eyebrows.

Reliance Industries makes most of its money from oil refining and petrochemicals but has also announced plans to invest $76 billion in clean energy projects.

Badr Jafar is the CEO of the UAE's oldest private oil and gas producer Crescent Petroleum. In 2021, he said that talk of an energy transition from fossil fuels to net zero is "reductionist" and that fossil fuels should be part of "our combined energy arsenal".

Bob Dudley, former head of BP and current chair of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, has said he believed the energy industry needs to get involved directly, so that "all voices" are heard. But has also previously warned against rolling out renewable energy "too fast".

Fu Chengyu is the former head of China's National Offshore Oil Corporation and set up the International Academy for Carbon Neutrality.

Jeffrey Ubben is on the board of American oil and gas producer ExxonMobil, which plans to invest $84 billion in fossil fuel development this decade.

He told Financial Times: "Fossil fuels are going to be consumed. I am sorry. If they are going to be consumed, let’s figure out how to decarbonise them and let’s layer in the green hydrogen technology as it becomes more affordable. But don’t cancel these companies.”

Jaber has since found support in people like US climate envoy John Kerry.

“I think that Dr Sultan al-Jaber is a terrific choice because he is the head of the company. That company knows it needs to transition,” Kerry said.

Campaigners will still watch the outcome with scepticism as it will be nothing short of a prophecy about which way the world turns – towards apocalyptic changes or a world on track to meeting emissions cuts.

Unveiling 'Elections 2024: The Big Picture', a fresh segment in HT's talk show 'The Interview with Kumkum Chadha', where leaders across the political spectrum discuss the upcoming general elections. Watch Now!

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    Tannu Jain works with HT's Page 1 team. She writes on the environment and climate change, with a focus on implications at the local and global levels. She is also the author of Cause and Effect, a weekly column for HT Premium.

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