A fossil fuel COP

Ahmed Mustafa, Wednesday 18 Jan 2023

Despite his green credentials and his country’s efforts at sustainability, the UAE appointing the head of ADNOC to lead COP28 is a controversial move.


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced this week the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber president-designate of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP28), to be hosted at the Emirati Capital Abu Dhabi in November. The announcement led to a campaign by climate activists claiming that fossil fuel magnates are distorting the fight against emissions.

The announcement was made only days before a series of energy conferences in the Emirati capital, focussed on fossil fuels and tackling climate change. But a campaign that was especially active on social media targeted Al Jaber as the managing director and group chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

An Op-ed under the title “An Oil Exec Running COP? This Isn’t a Joke” concluded that he “has green credentials but also a commitment to pumping more oil. It’s a recipe for controversy and slow action”. The article recalled the climate activist Greta Thunberg once summing up world leaders’ empty climate promises with the words “Blah blah blah”, suggesting that, “after the appointment of an oil executive as president of COP28, they will ring true to many climate advocates all over again”. The activist group Global Witness called the UAE appointment a “harsh blow” to the fight against fossil fuels.

These views also came up in connection with the last COP27, hosted by Egypt, where some campaigners and delegates felt fossil fuel producers had watered down emission reduction ambitions and “benefited from sympathetic treatment from Egypt”. The UN nonetheless praised the COP27 outcome.

This week, in an interview with the Associated Press, the former US secretary of state and American climate envoy John Kerry dismissed the idea that Al Jaber’s appointment should be automatically disqualified due to his position: “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... He knows and the leadership of the UAE is committed to transitioning”. Al Jaber is also the Emirati minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, and energy transition technology is an important element of the process.

The transition from fossil fuel to clean energy was the focus of a series of conferences in Abu Dhabi this week held mainly through the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum, part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW). The week also included a Green Hydrogen Summit for the first time.

Diplomatic Adviser to UAE President Anwar Gargash highlighted that, tweeting, “Energy, traditional and sustainable, is the most important item on the UAE’s diplomatic activity this week… As UAE is a trusted source of oil supply, it is a pioneer in our collective global efforts for sustainable alternatives.” In another tweet Gargash defended his country’s position on climate change, describing sustainability week as “a tradition that continues highlighting the UAE’s continued commitment to sustainable development. It is a commitment to solutions and actions that will be a hallmark of the UAE’s COP28 Presidency”.

Energy industry analysts dispute the idea of the world putting a halt to fossil fuels which must remain the main dynamo of economic activity until green energy gathers enough momentum to replace it. In that context, the International Energy Agency’s head Fatih Birol told the Financial Times last year that to meet global energy demand, the world would need to invest three trillion dollars in the oil and gas sector.

Officials and energy executives are aware that Al Jaber is the perfect person to lead that parallel approach: ensuring global energy supply while investing in green energy. The man came to prominence two decades ago with a pioneering Emirati endeavour, a carbon-free project named Masdar City. Under his leadership, Masdar – an arm of Abu Dhabi investment fund Mubadala – spread solar energy projects in almost every continent.

Besides solar energy, the UAE is now a leader in power generation using nuclear energy, recently bringing three nuclear power stations online. It is also investing in green hydrogen, and started its first shipment of that clean energy supply to Germany. This week it sealed agreements to export green hydrogen to four other European countries. Meanwhile, ADNOC is investing to increase its oil production to around four million barrels per day.

In his keynote speech at the energy forum this week, Al Jaber said, “Over the last 15 years, the UAE has invested a total of $50 billion in renewable energy and clean tech globally, and plans to invest another U$50 billion in the years ahead … Let’s create a paradigm shift for tangible progress. And let’s remember that reaching net-zero emissions will deliver the biggest market transformation with the greatest economic and human promise since the first Industrial Revolution.” He added, “As long as the world still uses hydrocarbons, we must ensure it is the least intensive use possible. We’re working with the energy industry on accelerating decarbonisation, reducing methane and expanding hydrogen.”

Energy industry experts participating in ADSW argue that the president designate of COP28 would be the “man of action”, steering the two weeks of climate negotiations in November towards agreed-on practical steps rather than differences on setting goals. Al Jaber established a track record as “the person who can deliver”. Almost all those who worked with him, bosses and subordinates, agree to this fact.

Despite that cloud of “activist” campaigns, COP28 will probably be the next milestone in the UN’s global climate efforts following COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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