Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber may have impressive green credentials, but many are saying his role as an oil company CEO disqualifies him as the host of this year’s global climate conference. His critics say it is unconscionable that the head of a major oil producer is being allowed to oversee COP28.
Al Jaber is the first CEO and the first head of an oil company to be president-designate of a COP meeting. His appointment has encountered considerable resistance from civil society and legislators. More than 400 environmental groups sent a letter to the UN secretary-general saying that Al Jaber’s position as president-designate of COP28, “threatens the legitimacy and efficacy” of the summit. At the end of May, 130 US and EU lawmakers said Al Jaber should not be allowed to host the climate talks.
In an interview with Bloomberg Green, Al Jaber called the controversy surrounding his appointment a big misunderstanding, and argued there is no contradiction between being an oil CEO and running a climate conference. He cautions his detractors not to prejudge his presidency and claims to have a plan that will deliver unprecedented private-sector emissions cuts.
Who is Sultan Al-Jaber?
Al Jaber’s academic achievements include a BSc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Southern California, an MBA from the California State University, and a Ph.D. in business and economics from the UK’s Coventry University.
In addition to being the president-designate of COP28, he is a former climate envoy. He is currently a UAE Cabinet Member and the Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology. The position that has garnered the most controversy is his role as the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the world’s 12th-largest producer of oil and gas.
While climate activists have decried what they see as a clear conflict of interest, Al Jaber insists that he is an advocate of “transformational progress”. His defenders tout his successes in both sustainable development and renewable energy. They point to his leadership role in Masdar, the UAE’s clean energy pathway, and his oversight of renewable energy investments in over 40 countries. They also say that the forthcoming climate summit will benefit from Al Jaber’s familiarity with the COP process, his knowledge of sustainable development, and his experience in both business and government.
Al Jaber’s spin machine
Al Jaber wants to focus on his leadership of the UAE’s renewable energy investments and overseas development aid. He has been working with consultancy firms and PR agencies to refurbish his image and promote his green credentials. Al Jaber’s spin masters want to downplay his role as the head of the country’s largest oil producer and focus public attention on ADNOC’s investments in carbon capture and green fuel technologies like hydrogen. While Al Jaber’s marketing team casts him as an ally of the climate movement, Amnesty International said he “cannot be an honest broker for climate talks when the company he leads is planning to cause more climate damage.”
As reported in Common Dreams, US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said: “It’s not surprising that COP28 is trying to burnish Al Jaber’s green credentials, but the fact remains that as an oil executive, he is also overseeing a lot of damage to the planet.” To avoid undue influence by the fossil fuel industry, Whitehouse urged the UN, to “rethink how to run these very important forums”.
Al Jaber is aware of the criticisms which is why he is trying to spin a more climate-friendly narrative. Members of Al Jaber’s team were found to have edited Wikipedia to downplay his role as CEO of ADNOC. Some of these Wikipedia edits were made by Ramzi Haddad, the head of the COP 28 marketing team. After being caught, Haddad tried to promote Al Jaber’s green credentials anonymously.
As reported by the Guardian, Marwa Fatafta, who leads the digital rights group Access Now, said the “alarming” Wikipedia revelations are part of broader attempts by the UAE to “polish up the image of Al Jaber [and] a pre-emptive step to try and control and shape the narrative as much as they can.”
Caroline Lucas, a British politician who has twice led the Green Party of England and Wales is concerned about the fossil fuel industry’s growing control. Lucas said, “Oil companies and their CEOs are taking greenwash to a whole new level – seizing control of global climate conferences, then getting their own employees to airbrush out criticism of their blatant hypocrisy on Wikipedia”.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion, that just as the UAE is trying to greenwash fossil fuels, the president-designate for COP 28 is trying to greenwash his image.
Al Jaber is a wolf in sheep’s clothing
The UAE may be small, but its carbon footprint is huge. With a footprint that is three times the global average, the UAE is one of the largest per capita emitters of GHGs in the world. Almost a third of the country’s GDP is derived directly from oil and gas and much of the rest of the UAE’s economy is related to industries linked to fossil fuels.
In 2022, the UAE produced 2,954,000 barrels of oil per day making it the world’s seventh-largest oil producer. The country also has the seventh largest oil reserves, with more than 110 billion barrels, including 650 million barrels of new discoveries.
Last November ADNOC’s board endorsed plans to increase energy production from an average of 3.2 million barrels of petroleum and liquids per day to 5 million barrels per day. A comparison of oil production in the UAE in February and March reveals that crude oil production is increasing in 2023. An OCI report found that between 2023 and 2025 the UAE will see one of the world’s largest expansions in fossil fuel-related CO2 emissions.
Al Jaber’s emission reduction plan including “key deliverables” and “concrete KPIs” are intended to justify increasing fossil fuel production. Yet, a plethora of scientific studies including those from the IPCC as well as the IEA have clearly stated that to keep warming below prescribed limits (1.5°C or 2.7°F above preindustrial levels) there can be no new investments in fossil fuels.
The science is being ignored as oil and gas emissions keep increasing and petrostates like the UAE are planning massive increases in production. Despite decades of disinformation, it is abundantly clear that the fossil fuel industry will not voluntarily slash production.
Al Jaber’s emissions reduction plan is heavily dependent on massively scaling carbon removal and while this is a critical part of the suite of required actions, it is not a panacea. To achieve the required emissions reductions within the window of time we have, we must simultaneously build out carbon removal technologies alongside significant reductions in fossil fuel production. While Al Jaber can boast some major climate accomplishments, his plans to increase oil and gas production preclude any pretense of climate leadership.