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Sultan al-Jaber: COP28 lightning rod confronts his critics

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With less than two months to go until COP28, the Dubai conference is shaping up to be one of the most intense — and contentious — UN climate summits so far. Much of that controversy has focused on the event’s president, Sultan al-Jaber, who spoke yesterday to me and FT colleagues Attracta Mooney and Simeon Kerr about his ambitions for the event, while pushing back against his critics.

Read on, and let us know your thoughts on the outlook for COP28. Whatever twists and turns emerge, we’ll be there in Dubai, bringing you daily updates from the ground.

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Sultan al-Jaber has his work cut out to silence the critics

In the tumultuous 28-year history of UN climate summits, perhaps no individual has been such a prominent human lightning rod for criticism as Sultan al-Jaber, the president of this year’s COP28 in Dubai.

The event’s host — the United Arab Emirates, the world’s seventh-biggest oil producer — was always going to be fiercely controversial. The decision to have it helmed by Jaber, even as he continues his tenure as chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, added a hefty slug of fuel to the flames.

More than 100 members of the European parliament and US Congress wrote to the UN in May to urge that Jaber be replaced, arguing that his role would enable fossil fuel companies to “exert undue influence” on climate negotiations. Former US vice-president Al Gore followed up this summer by lambasting Jaber’s “blatant conflict of interest” in a widely viewed TED talk.

In our interview yesterday, Jaber sought to flip this argument on its head. Far from disqualifying him from the COP presidency, he argued, his powerful role in the oil industry made him uniquely well placed to corral that sector into supporting climate action.

Ahead of COP28’s kick-off on November 30, Jaber is scrambling to recruit energy companies and other heavily emitting businesses to his new Global Decarbonisation Alliance, which he is hoping to launch at the conference. Members will need to commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050, and reducing their methane emissions to “near zero” by the end of this decade.

Full details of the alliance’s commitments still needed to be hammered out, Jaber said, adding that more than 20 oil companies had already pledged their support.

“The fact that I have been able to transform, decarbonise and future-proof Adnoc in such a short period of time, that gives me full confidence” that the industry would be able to support progress towards limiting global warming to 1.5C, Jaber said.

This claim will infuriate Jaber’s many critics, given Adnoc’s plans to increase its oil and gas production during the course of this decade, and its unwillingness to include “scope 3” emissions — from its supply chain and the use of its products — in its net zero target.

COP28 will run in Dubai from November 30 to December 12 © REUTERS

But Adnoc has made more effort to clean up its act than some large oil producers — notably by halting routine gas flaring, by pledging to eliminate all methane emissions from its operations by 2030 and all operational net carbon emissions by 2045, and by committing $15bn of investment to “low-carbon solutions” this decade. By challenging laggards to follow Adnoc’s lead, and highlighting which ones do or don’t fall in line, Jaber can fairly claim to be putting pressure on the most recalcitrant companies in the sector.

“A phase-down of fossil fuels is inevitable and is essential,” Jaber said. “I don’t want this industry to be seen in any way, form or shape [as] going against the phase-down. This is happening.”

His choice of language is worth scrutinising here. As I reported from Sharm el-Sheikh last year, the final days of COP27 brought a late effort by dozens of countries to include in the final declaration a reference to the “phase-down” of all fossil fuels. This proposal was shot down, with some participants blaming opposition from Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers. It is far from clear whether this language has a chance of making it into the closing text this time around — but the COP28 president’s emphatic endorsement, as a senior figure in a major oil-producing state, is noteworthy.

It is that closing text, and the broader momentum that is (or is not) galvanised by the intergovernmental talks, on which Jaber’s COP presidency will be judged. Jaber said he was putting finance at the core of his agenda for the event: he would push donor countries to commit to replenishing the Green Climate Fund, and to double their funding for climate adaptation in poorer countries.

Following the agreement in principle at COP27 to establish a loss and damage fund to help climate-vulnerable nations, he has vowed to get it up and running, and secure an agreement on how it will be funded. And he wants the event to yield progress on blended finance, with governments and multilateral lenders expanding efforts to incentivise climate-related investment from the private sector.

Whatever progress is achieved on these issues, however, critics will be watching for evidence to back Gore’s claim that, under the leadership of Jaber, the COP process has been “captured” by the fossil fuel agenda. One red-hot topic is carbon capture and storage: to its promoters, a technology that will allow continued use of fossil fuels without planet-heating emissions; to its doubters, a concept unproven at scale that is being cynically pushed by the oil and gas industry, diverting funding from truly clean energy sources.

Jaber defended investment in carbon capture, saying the world should “commercialise it and scale it up because it is one proven technology that will help reduce and eliminate carbon”. And he urged COP28 participants to focus on attacking “climate change and emissions”, rather than a fossil fuel industry “that has contributed to human prosperity over hundreds of years”.

But as Jaber himself acknowledged, fossil fuels are on the way out, in a trend that governments now need to accelerate. To be credible — and restore faith in the UN climate process — COP28 will need to make life a lot more uncomfortable for all but the most ambitious companies in his sector. (Simon Mundy)

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