UAE appoints oil exec to lead COP28 climate talks, sparking outrage



The next round of U.N. climate talks will be led by an oil executive, the United Arab Emirates, set to host this fall’s global summit, announced Thursday.

The decision to name Sultan Al Jaber, the chief executive of one of the world’s largest oil companies, as president of COP28, after one of the hottest years on record, drew swift condemnation from environmental groups and climate scientists.

“A truly breathtaking conflict of interest,” Romain Ioualalen, global policy manager at Oil Change International, said in a statement, calling the move “tantamount to putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty.”

The U.N. climate change conferences, known as COPs, “have always been circuses,” one climate scientist tweeted. “Now they are complete jokes.”

The announcement, published by the official UAE news agency, points to Al Jaber’s green credentials, including his work as the country’s special envoy for climate change and his “proactive participatory role” in more than 10 of the U.N. climate summits, which bring together government officials, scientists and activists — along with plenty of oil and gas executives — to wrangle over deals to try to slow climate change and mitigate its damaging effects.

Al Jaber, who runs the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is also the UAE’s minister of industry and advanced technology and the chief executive of Masdar, a renewable energy company based in Abu Dhabi. Masdar has contracted with the global communications firm BCW to “engage in strategic communications activities to support the UAE in its role as host country in 2023 for COP28,” according to a federal disclosure form.

The announcement points to large-scale solar projects in the UAE and investments topping $50 billion in renewable energy projects around the world, and touts Al Jaber’s role in the national old company’s decarbonization strategy. It does not mention the company’s mammoth commitment to carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

The company’s oil, gas, refined products and petrochemicals are sold on six continents, according to its website, which says the company is “developing new trading capabilities to better meet the growing demand for oil, gas and refined products around the world.”

The UAE has 10 percent of the total world supply of oil reserves and the world’s fifth-largest natural gas reserves, according to its embassy in Washington. Nearly a third of its GDP is based directly on the oil and gas industries.

The UAE will remain a “responsible supplier” of oil and gas for as long as the world needs, its president, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, said at the start of the last climate summit in November, although the country has pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2050.

With Thursday’s appointment, a leader in the world’s extractive industries will gain an even more prominent role in international climate policy. Al Jaber will be the first chief executive to hold the position, according to the announcement.

While past COP presidents have come from a variety of backgrounds, most have had a government post that deals with energy or environmental issues. In 2018, Poland put the secretary of its energy ministry, Michal Kurtyka, in charge of that year’s summit. He went on to serve as Poland’s climate and environment minister. In 2019, Chile appointed its environment minister, Carolina Schmidt, as president of COP25.

After a one-year hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s Alok Sharma served as the president of the high-profile COP26 talks in Glasgow, Scotland. Sharma, a longtime member of Parliament, had served as secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy. Last year, at COP27, Egypt appointed Sameh Shoukry, its longtime foreign minister and a former diplomat, to the job.

Presidents of each year’s climate talks have a role that is both ceremonial and indispensable. In part, they serve as the face of the host country, a sort of emcee for the proceedings and the most visible official welcoming delegations. But their main challenge is to resolve disputes, forge compromises, twist arms and make sure the two weeks of negotiations result in actual progress — a tall task given that any agreement requires the support of nearly 200 nations.

The last summit, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November, led to the creation of a fund to support vulnerable countries after disasters. But delegates made little progress on emissions-cutting measures, even as extreme weather linked to climate change unleashes global destruction.

Al Jaber pledged to “champion an inclusive agenda” that prioritizes the needs of the Global South and ensures climate finance — to support mitigation and adaptation efforts — reaches the most vulnerable populations, according to Thursday’s announcement.

But climate activists and environmental groups worry that his appointment portends even greater influence from key players in the fossil fuel industry.

Zeina Khalil Hajj, head of global campaigning and organizing for the activist group 350.org, said Thursday’s appointment “risks jeopardizing the entire U.N. climate progress.”

“We are extremely concerned that it will open the floodgates for greenwashing and oil and gas deals to keep exploiting fossil fuels,” she said in a statement. “COP 28 cannot turn into an expo for the fossil fuel industry.”

Sarah Kaplan and Maxine Joselow contributed to this report.

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