An unavoidable tension surrounds this year’s United Nations-sponsored climate talks in November: They will take place in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, and the most important role at the talks is held by the man who heads the national oil company.
The executive, Sultan al-Jaber, and other representatives of the Emirates have argued that they have a “game changing” plan to fight climate change by welcoming oil and gas companies from around the world to participate more fully in the talks. In other words, invite the producers of the fuels that cause the majority of global warming as key players in developing a plan to slow the warming.
In an interview, Majid al-Suwaidi, an Emirati diplomat who will also play a major role at the climate talks, known by the acronym COP28, said, “We need to engage the people who have the technical know-how, the skills, the technology — and, by the way, the people who provide jobs — in a conversation about how they transform.”
To activists who have attended these conferences for years, that notion sounds far-fetched. “It’s just like how tobacco lobbyists need to be kept out of conversations about cancer prevention,” said Catherine Abreu, who heads Destination Zero, a network of nonprofits working on climate issues.
The conference will take place amid a backdrop of resurgent fossil fuel investment after a brief, pandemic-era dip. Energy use derived from fossil fuels accounts for more than two-thirds of global emissions.
Over the past year, the world’s biggest producers — places like the United States, Saudi Arabia, Norway and the Emirates — have approved dozens of vast new drilling projects. This month, the Emirates received long-sought permission from OPEC, the coalition of oil-producing nations that coordinates on output and prices, to pump more oil starting next year. ADNOC, the oil company Mr. al-Jaber heads, is investing billions in meeting those new targets.
In a recent speech, Mr. al-Jaber reiterated his ambition to see the world agree to a collective pledge of tripling renewable energy by 2030, which he cast as part of a transition toward “an energy system that is free of unabated fossil fuels.”
As is the case in much of the nitty-gritty work of ironing out global agreements on technical issues, much of what is seen as progress for climate activists comes down to seemingly minute details like the use of the word “abatement” in Mr. al-Jaber’s speech.
It’s a word echoed by other powerful actors in the climate arena like former Senator John Kerry, the United States’ climate envoy. And its usage implies, to some, that these leaders see climate goals and continued fossil fuel production as compatible, as long as technology to capture their emissions is widely deployed. That kind of massive technological rollout is many years away in the rosiest of scenarios.
“Fossil fuel interests actively work to co-opt our imaginations,” Ms. Abreu said. “Governments now can imagine a geo-engineered planet easier than a grow-out of renewables that already exist.”
Before this year, the COP process was already weathering a crisis of credibility. Despite warnings from the world’s top climate scientists, many of the conferences biggest achievements on paper — for instance, promises from rich nations to deliver sufficient funds for poorer ones to cope with a climate crisis they played little role in creating — have fallen far short in reality.
Negotiators from small island nations, Latin America and Africa have been joined by those from the European Union in calling for the conference to deliver an agreement on a “phaseout” of fossil fuels. But they have received stiff resistance from representatives from producing countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
To the question of a phaseout, Mr. al-Suwaidi said he hoped this COP would be “about what we are building up, what we are scaling up, what we are speeding up, not what we’re taking away from people.”
This year’s COP will take place in the Emirates because the United Nations’ climate body rotates hosts among five world regions. Nations’ representatives to that body endorsed the Asia-Pacific region’s choice of the Emirates by consensus. The expected juxtaposition of fossil fuel companies alongside negotiators and activists calling for their elimination will be starker than ever, and suspicion between the two sides runs deep.
Over the past weeks, seemingly automated Twitter accounts promoting the Emirates’ climate credentials have produced a wave of content on the platform, leading activists to allege “greenwashing.” A COP28 spokesman said that he was aware of “fake bot Twitter accounts” and that they were “generated by outside actors” and “clearly designed to discredit COP28.”
The distrust threatens to undermine the COP process further, said Tom Evans, a climate policy adviser at E3G, a think tank. It is likely to distract from the failures of industrialized nations that contribute the vast majority of climate-warming emissions and that continue to slow-walk what he said was urgent action needed on emissions reductions.
“What’s really important more broadly is a lack of leadership, of powerful countries being champions and creating the conditions for success,” he said. “Instead we have a vacuum.”
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.