Accusations and aspirations: fossil fuel use takes centre stage in the lead up to COP28

As the UAE appointed its COP28 President, criticism was leveraged at their fossil fuel linked choice, whilst others highlighted a career in renewable energy as a positive. As governments aim for a fossil fuel phase out, we unpick the accusations of a lack of objectivity.
December 1, 2023

The build up to COP28 carried questions of objectivity

Every year, a different nation hosts the COP. This year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are serving as the COP28 host nation, with the event taking place in Dubai from November 30th, 2023, to December 12th, 2023. The president of the host nation is chosen to head the negotiations; this person is crucial in advising governments and other interested parties, offering guidance and direction, and finally mediating the agreements that are reached. The negotiations will be led in Dubai by Dr. Sultan al-Jaber, the UAE's minister of industry and advanced technologies as well as the managing director and group managing director of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC Group). Al-Jaber's affiliation with the fossil fuel sector and the increasing sway of fossil fuel lobbyists at COPs in general has sparked debate and sparked questions about the climate talks' objectivity.[i] 

Former US Vice President, Al Gore, voiced his own concerns on the appointment saying that fossil fuel interests had “captured the U.N. process to a disturbing degree, even putting the CEO of one of the largest oil companies in the world in as president of COP28.”[ii]

Adding to the cacophony of displeasure that followed Al-Jaber’s selection as COP President, Alice Harrison, fossil fuel campaign leader at Global Witness said:

“You wouldn’t invite arms dealers to lead peace talks. So why let oil executives lead climate talks?”[iii]

In defence of the appointment Professor Ibrahim Ozdemir, of Clark University, wrote for The Conversation that whilst he was able to empathise with the concerns of others, there were other facts about Al-Jaber that needed to be taken into account. Ozdemir explains that Al-Jaber had also spent much of his career in the renewable energy sector having founded and run the largest renewable energy operator in Africa. Ozdemir also takes the time to highlight the role of other nations leading fossil fuel projects that exceed the scope of the UAE’s.[iv]

In pursuit of phasing out fossil fuel use

The objectivity of a COP President with ties to fossil fuels is of interest especially in the context of international will to agree on fossil fuel phaseouts. When we think about climate change, it’s highly likely that one’s mind’s eye conjures images of power plant chimneys belching out carbon emissions. As such, the fact that it wasn’t until COP26 that any negotiations included fossil fuels by name within an agreement.[v] The Financial Times has reported that they have been privy to a letter signed by 15 nations including the UK, Canada and Germany, that seeks to build on this initial COP26 agreement to reduce coal. The letter calls for COP28 to deliver an agreement on coal that would end funding of new coal power projects.[vi]

Such a phaseout of coal alone has garnered criticism from India, who rely heavily on coal power to meet their rapidly growing energy demands. This is important when we remember the role of Al-Jaber in the deployment of renewable energy across emerging economies in Africa. This does credit to the COP28 President’s appointment as such experience could ensure expertise and balance as the arguments for and against fossil fuel phase out agreements develop over the course of COP28.

Is the UAE presidency best placed to achieve a fossil fuel phase out?

The BBC reports that the UAE planned to use its central role in COP28 to further its oil and gas exports internationally. Plans to discuss fossil fuel deals with 15 countries have been revealed by leaked briefing materials. The BBC was informed by the UN organisation organising the COP28 meeting that impartial and selfless behaviour was expected of the hosts. The UAE team stated that "private meetings are private" but did not refute using COP28 meetings for business discussions. It stated that its work has been concentrated on "meaningful climate action" but declined to comment on the topics covered in the discussions. The materials were produced by the UAE's COP28 team for talks with at least 27 foreign countries ahead of the COP28 summit.[vii]

Such an accusation, if true, could undo the hope for fairness that could be taken from the experiences in renewable energy employment of the COP President himself and hinder progress on a fossil fuel phase out agreement. Al-Jaber told a press conference in Dubai on Wednesday the 29th of November:

“These allegations are false, not true, incorrect, and not accurate.. and it’s an attempt to undermine the work of the COP28 presidency.”[viii]


[i] Chatham House-  What is COP28 and why is it important?

[ii] The Conversation- Backlash to the oil CEO leading the UN climate summit overlooks his ambitious agenda for COP28 – and concerns of the Global South

[iii] EuroNews- COP28 president reveals plan for ‘brutally honest’ UN climate summit: What else do we know so far?

[iv] The Conversation- Backlash to the oil CEO leading the UN climate summit overlooks his ambitious agenda for COP28 – and concerns of the Global South

[v] Chatham House-  What is COP28 and why is it important?

[vi] Financial Times- UK, Canada and Germany lead fresh push against coal power at COP28

[vii] BBC News- COP28: UAE planned to use climate talks to make oil deals

[viii] CNN- COP28 leader hits back at allegations he used climate talks to strike oil deals

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Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

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