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“What’s the point in our climate summits if they’re being undermined by a shadow network of fossil fuel lobbying?”
This question, asked by a campaigner to Global Citizen, is one that’s resounded amongst climate activist networks since it was announced in January that Sultan Al Jaber, the man tasked with leading the UN’s COP28 climate change conference when it’s hosted later this year in United Arab Emirates, would also remain in his role as the head of the country’s national oil company. “It makes the whole summit a sham,” one campaigner told Global Citizen.
Held between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12, 2023, COP28 is a significant milestone as it marks the halfway point in the implementation of the Global Goals and will see the first assessment of how countries are faring against emissions-cutting commitments made at Paris in 2015 (known as the Paris agreement) — a process known as the “global stocktake.”
One of the core issues on the agenda is fossil fuels, which still account for 82% of the world’s energy supply, according to the industry's Statistical Review of World Energy report. In case anyone needs reminding, fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas — are by far the largest contributors to the climate crisis, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions.
Ahead of the crucial climate talks, Al Jaber has made a point of emphasizing the need for a “phase down” of fossil fuels while stating that fossil fuel companies are key to the world’s energy transition. Not everyone agrees.
Climate activists argue that expecting Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), to take the decisive action that is required to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels is naive at best, and scandalous at worst. Adnoc itself is the 11th biggest oil and gas producer in the world — and has announced a $150 billion investment over five years to boost oil and gas production.
As conservationist, climate activist, and communication lead at Kenya Environmental Action Network, Winnie Cheche, put it: it’s like “leaving a lion in charge of protecting antelopes.” Further underlining this point, French MEP Manon Aubry, said: “It is like having a tobacco multinational overseeing the internal work of the World Health Organization.”
Al Jaber was due to speak at the Energy Intelligence Forum, know as "the Oscars of Oil" among climate activist circles, in London in October but reportedly withdrew just days before — a decision Fossil Free London claims was due to the strong presence of protesters, including Greta Thunberg, at the venue.
In recent years, fossil fuel companies have rolled back their climate pledges, lobbied against climate regulations, promoted fossil fuels to young people on Fortnite, manipulated Congress with a stream of false information, and more — taking more than one leaf out of the tobacco industry’s playbook.
Speaking at a side event during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, the UN’s former climate chief Christiana Figueres — who had argued for years that oil and gas companies should have a seat at the climate policymaking table — said that fossil fuel companies should be excluded from the COP28 climate summit if they continued to block climate action. Her remarks came just a few months after she made her position clear in an op-ed entitled: “I thought fossil fuel firms could change. I was wrong.”
Shortly after Figueres' opinion piece was published, the UN announced it would require fossil fuel lobbyists to identify themselves as such when registering for COP28. While politicians lauded this move, journalist Amy Westervelt said it simply “add[s] to the fairytale that industry representatives are attending the summit in good faith.”
At COP26, which took place in Glasgow in 2021, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered any nation’s delegation. In fact, oil, gas, and coal were better represented at the summit than the combined representation of the eight countries that had suffered the greatest climate change effects since 2000.
Intersectional climate activist Tori Tsui told Global Citizen: “Hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists find it very easy to get into COP yet climate justice advocates have to scramble for accreditation and funding to be there and many can’t.”
Many activists who would like to attend are facing the issue of steep costs. Following activist Mana Omar’s calculations, “at least US$6,000-7,000 is needed for one person to attend,” putting the climate conference well out of reach for many activists, particularly those from the Global South.
“Regarding accreditation, funding, and visas, I still have nothing,” climate activist Yero Sarr told Global Citizen. “It's like searching for gold here.”
This year, the summit takes place in the United Arab Emirates, which the Guardian revealed in April this year, has the third biggest net zero-busting plans for oil and gas expansion in the world.
While there has been a lot of media attention on the UAE as a fossil fuel producer, activist Tori Tsui asks us to interrogate that.
“If the US were hosting a COP,” she told us, “many would likely be discussing Biden’s climate leadership despite having the most fossil fuel expansion planned out of any country on Earth, vastly more than the UAE.”
“We have to question why we apply such scrutiny to fossil fuel producers from the Global South while we often frame wealthy oil and gas producers as climate leaders,” she continued. “The UAE does need to do far more to phase out fossil fuels, but we need to make sure other countries don’t get off the hook just by pointing the finger.”
A report published by the UN in September of this year found that governments are failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to meet the goals of the Paris agreement and to stave off climate disaster.
Meeting the Paris agreement’s goals will require “phasing out all unabated fossil fuels”, according to the report. This might not sound controversial on the surface, but this was the first time that the need to phase out fossil fuels was explicitly adopted by the UN after controversy over “phasing out” versus “phasing down” language at past climate talks.
Alok Sharma, President of COP26, said the report’s findings would undoubtedly be key discussion points at COP28. “It would be a significant achievement, and a win for people and the planet,” he said, “if at COP28 the world agreed to consign fossil fuels to history.”
Ugandan climate activist Nyombi Morris is clear: if government leaders are serious about the end of fossil fuels, they should endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international treaty spearheaded by a bloc of Pacific nations that would manage a just transition away from fossil fuels.
“Words will not work this time round," Morris said. "You either act or we count COP28 as a conference of tourists."