This year’s climate summit has been described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to formally signal the beginning of the end of fossil fuels. The 28th conference of the parties (COP28) will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from November 30 to December 12. The president-delegate is Ahmed Al Jaber who is also the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). Climate activists are outraged by the fact that this year’s summit is taking place in a petrostate and being hosted by an oil industry CEO. While others believe that as the primary cause of climate change, the fossil fuel industry should have a seat at the table. Here is a summary of how the UAE stacks up to all the spin and the kind of outcome we can expect from the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference.
What is the UAE doing about climate change?
The UAE does not fit the stereotype of an oil-rich Gulf state. The Emirates stands out from its regional neighbors in that it is the first Mideast country to ratify the Paris Accord and the first Gulf state to commit to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050. The UAE’s President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed has said he wants to prepare his country for a world beyond oil.
Al Jaber has vowed action on mitigation, adaptation, and finance. He said he wants to quadruple investments in clean technology and direct it to those in the global south who need it most. This includes a $4.5 billion investment to develop 15 GW of clean power in Africa by 2030.
For more than a decade the UAE has been supporting clean energy through Masdar and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, while ADNOC is emerging as a global leader in green hydrogen. At the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi, the COP28 president designate claimed he wants to go “further and faster” by radically increasing renewable energy output from 8 to 23 terawatt hours. The country is also investing in innovative technologies like solar-powered water desalination and waste-to-energy plants.
By 2030, the UAE wants to triple its renewable energy capacity to 14 GW and raise the percentage of clean energy in the total energy mix to 30 percent by 2031. The Emirates plans to triple its solar capacity to 9GW in the next 7 years and already has three of the world’s largest photovoltaic projects generating some of the least expensive energy on the planet. To date, the UAE has invested more than $50 billion in renewable energy projects across 70 countries, and it plans to invest an additional $50 billion in the coming decades.
Masdar City, UAE is a model of sustainable development that has attracted global attention. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) moved its headquarters to Masdar City in 2015. The city hosts the annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) which shares net zero strategies, technology, and best practices with attendees from all around the world. ADSW also has outreach programs for women and youth.
Recently, Al Jaber has indicated that he wants to cut methane leaks and flaring associated with fossil fuel extraction. As reported by Oil Price, ADNOC has awarded a $17 billion contract for the world’s first net zero gas project, and the oil giant claims it is working towards company-wide net zero operations by 2045.
UAE’s carefully crafted spin
At first glance, the UAE and Al Jaber seem to be doing and saying all the right things, but looks can be deceiving. The UAE net zero gas project is a great example, critics have pointed out that their assessments exclude scope 3 emissions which, according to the CDP, are more than 10 times direct emissions.
Al Jaber and the UAE want the world to focus on their renewable energy investments and other low-carbon initiatives, but they do not mention that most of the Emirates’ energy investments are geared towards expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. Despite its support for clean energy, the UAE is still the world’s 7th largest producer of oil and gas.
While Al Jaber claims Big Oil can scale renewables, his words are contradicted by the reality on the ground. In recent years fossil fuel companies have divested from clean energy projects and in 2023 they walked back their climate commitments.
The speeches and statements coming out of the UAE are carefully crafted, so while they sound good, a deeper dive reveals meanings that betray their word choices. In February, Climate Change News quoted a speech delivered by UAE’s environment minister Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri at the Munich Security Conference: “We need to then phase out oil and gas in a just way, ” he said. The inclusion of the word “just” completely changes the meaning of this statement. It has been interpreted to mean that Almheiri wants to ensure there is an ample supply of hydrocarbons for as long as there is demand.
Al-Jaber said the fossil fuel industry must be part of what he described as an “inclusive” climate agenda. While forging ‘partnerships’ and ‘working in solidarity’ makes sense on the surface, many are concerned that these are talking points that are part of a public relations ploy designed to smuggle the fossil fuel agenda into COP28.
Al Jaber is correct to call for a “system-wide holistic transformation of entire economies,” but it is a miscarriage of logic to ignore the fact that the vast majority of emissions come from fossil fuels. His calls for collective action, while necessary, are intended to spread the blame and obscure the hydrocarbon industry’s failure to own its individual responsibility.
Al Jaber’s incompatible climateclaimsand his Jekyll and Hydepresidency
Al Jaber’s efforts to portray himself as a climate advocate are at odds with both his position as an oil company CEO and his comments. Whether overt or subtle, Al Jaber has consistently defended fossil fuel interests. In a statement reported by CNBC confirming his appointment as the president-designate for COP28, Al-Jaber said, “Pragmatism and constructive dialogue must be at the forefront of our progress”. This statement and Al Jaber’s advocacy of ‘balance’ and call for ‘a diversified energy mix’ is being interpreted as an expression of support for the ongoing extraction of fossil fuels.
This view is further supported by Al Jaber’s claims that the industry has a role to play in what he describes as an orderly energy transition. “The world needs maximum energy, minimum emissions and it needs all the energy solutions if we are to ensure global energy security,” Al Jaber was quoted as saying in a statement.
Most climate scientists tacitly disagree with Al Jaber. Those who know the climate crisis best say we need immediate dramatic phase-downs of fossil fuels with a clear near-term plan to phase them out. So, while Al Jaber claims to be a climate advocate, this is irreconcilable with his plan to increase oil and gas production. As reported by The Journal, ADNOC’s expansion plans will increase the oil company’s emissions by more than 40 percent by 2030.* This schism between word and deed led Global Witness to call Al Jaber’s leadership a “Jekyll and Hyde presidency”.
By the numbers: The UAE’s carbon footprint and energy plan for 2050
Despite the UAE‘s clean energy-themed public relations efforts, the country is dependent on fossil fuels and as revealed by their 2050 energy goals they intend to keep it that way. The country produces 218 million tons of direct emissions each year and more than 2 billion tons of Scope 3 emissions. They have one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world and this is steadily trending upward. ADNOC’s capital expenditures on oil and gas are expected to be $150 billion between 2023 and 2027. This is three times what they are planning to invest in renewables in the next decade. ADNOC’s 5-year business plan clearly shows the company plans to ramp up production from 3 to 5 million barrels per day or more.
The entire fossil fuel industry had a banner year in 2022. As reported by Reuters, ADNOC Drilling saw a 33 percent increase in profits while revenues increased to $2.67 billion in 2022 compared to $2.27 billion in 2021. The UAE is diversifying its economy, and it is also reducing domestic consumption of oil, but these actions are dwarfed by ADNOC’s massive hydrocarbon expansion plans.
Al Jaber assures us we can keep producing fossil fuels and slash 22 gigatons of carbon emissions in the coming years. This is premised on the promise to implement carbon capture on a grand scale. This position was reiterated recently by the CEO of Saudi oil giant Aramco, Amin Nasser who said COP28 should focus on securing pledges to cut emissions from hydrocarbons, rather than reducing production.
A well-warranted lack of trust in the fossil fuel industry
Al Jaber has complained about the mistrust he is encountering. He said people are going “on the attack without knowing anything, without knowing who we are, without knowing who am I, without knowing what we bring to the table”. He dismissed his critics and defended the UAE saying, “The world only, for whatever reason, views us as an oil-and-gas nation”. Statements like this are intentionally misleading. Al Jaber knows full well that the reason the UAE is seen as an oil and gas nation is because much of the UAE’s economy remains directly or indirectly reliant on hydrocarbons.
He merits suspicion. He is a leader in an industry that over the course of more than 70 years, has earned the public’s mistrust. There is a well-documented track record of Big Oils subterfuge and disinformation. First, the fossil fuel industry denied the existence of climate change, then they denied its anthropogenic origins, and now they are saying the answer is decarbonization. Many have concluded that this is just the latest effort to buy time so they can keep reaping windfall profits.
While Al Jaber concedes that oil companies have blocked progress, he wants us to believe that after decades of increasing production, they will cut emissions by 43 percent over the next seven years. Al Jaber argues that the oil and gas industry has the knowledge, capital, and technology to solve the world’s energy challenges. However, after decades of demonstrating who they are, there is no reason to believe that the fossil fuel industry will stop opposing climate solutions or make good on its promise to decarbonize hydrocarbons.
The UAE’s PR efforts to greenwash fossil fuels have been exposed and ADNOC staff were found to have access to all the emails sent to the COP28 team. Some members of the oil giant have even been appointed to key roles at the climate summit.
The Guardian, published the contents of leaked internal records that show long-standing oil industry PR professionals employed by ADNOC (Philip Robinson and Paloma Berenguer) are working with the COP28 team. According to the leaked communications plan, the UAE has adopted a fossil fuel-friendly public relations strategy that seeks to influence the tone, agenda, and narrative of the summit.
In a move that reflects growing concerns about the dangers of the fossil fuel industries’ COP creep, the U.N. announced that it will require delegates attending the COP28 climate summit to disclose their affiliations.
We won’t see a phase down let alone a phase-out
COP28 CEO, Adnan Amin, recently told news agency AP, there will be no deal to phase out fossil fuels at this year’s climate conference. This is a bombshell, but Big Oil is intent on shaping the narrative to make it look as though progress is being made. So, they will talk about an energy transition, and promise to cut emissions. They will frame ongoing extraction as a laudable service to humanity so that they can ensure that there is an adequate energy supply at affordable prices.
As reported by Reuters, UAE Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei said the world still needs oil and gas and his country intends to keep producing it. He said the industry has a “responsibility to the world to provide the transition with enough hydrocarbon resources to make sure we are transitioning at a responsibly priced manner”. Nasser agrees saying cutting oil and gas production would cause shortages and price hikes.
Al Jaber stands with the entire fossil fuel industry in refusing to commit to phasing out hydrocarbons. Although Al Jaber calls the phase down of fossil fuels ‘inevitable’ and ‘essential’, he says, this can only happen when we have enough renewable energy capacity to accommodate the shortfall. So, he is not calling for a phase-down, let alone a phase-out of fossil fuels. He is advocating reducing emissions through so-called abatement efforts like carbon capture.
Obfuscation is at the core of the fossil fuel industry’s united strategy going into COP28. They will not mention that they are motivated by massive profits, nor will they acknowledge the civilization-ending threat that is climate change, instead they will characterize themselves as humanity’s saviors. They will ignore the scientific consensus that says we must end our reliance on fossil fuels, and they will ignore reports that show how this can be done. ** They will insist that it is impossible to wean ourselves off oil and gas for the foreseeable future.
Stepping on the gas as we travel down the road to ruin
As U.N. General Secretary Antonio Guterres said, there is no alternative to phasing out fossil fuels. “To stand a fighting chance of limiting global temperature rise, we must phase out oil, coal, and gas,” Guterres said. This summer’s record-breaking heat adds urgency to efforts to curtail emissions. According to the IPCC, the EIA, and many other highly credible science-based organizations, if we are to have a shot at reigning in climate change, we must immediately begin cutting emissions from fossil fuels and make plans to phase them out.*** Although this is where we should be going, Al Jaber has made it clear that this is not the row he will hoe at COP28. All signs suggest that, in a tragically ironic twist, he will use COP28 to move us in the opposite direction and increase global production of hydrocarbons.
Al Jaber is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and true to form he will use the climate conference to buy the right to pump more oil and gas with promises of renewables and emissions-free energy. For this reason, many are dismissing COP28 as another installment of fossil fuel disinformation that will prolong their capacity to extract hydrocarbons.
For decades the fossil fuel industry has shown us who they are, we should take stock of what we know. They have repeatedly demonstrated that there is no bar too low, they will do anything to slow the energy transition. This is their overarching strategic objective for COP28. It is hard for COP observers to understand how a petrostate and an oil chief can preside over a climate conference. Romain Ioualalen, the global policy manager at OCI, said: “This is a truly breathtaking conflict of interest and is tantamount to putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty.”
Oil and gas companies have no plans to phase out fossil fuels, they will not even agree to a phase-down. Their pledges to invest in renewables and carbon capture are another stall tactic that is little more than a pretext to continue extracting oil and gas. The COP28 roadmap is strewn with promises designed to pave the way for more hydrocarbons. While some may have held out a naïve hope that the fossil fuel industry would be good faith partners, by now it should be clear that they will not voluntarily change their business model. COP28 is a Faustian bargain in which the fox has been given the keys to the henhouse.
*In 2022 ADNOC produced 957 million barrels of oil and 62 billion cubic metres of gas by 2030 these numbers are expected to increase to 1.3 billion barrels and 88 billion cubic metres respectively. Together this represents an increase of CO2 from 487 million tons to 684 million tons in 2030.
** A recently released 600-page report from the National Academies of Science provides the latest iteration of a transition roadmap that would end fossil fuels within a decade. There are other similar reports like a 2021 report from the IEA.
*** The best science we have suggests that we will need to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels to stand a chance of keeping temperatures below the upper threshold temperature limits laid out in the Paris Agreement (2 degrees Celsius or3.6 Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels).