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Meet COP28: The new private members club for oil barons and autocrats

Opinion Piece

COP28, December 2023 | Credit: Dean Calma, IAEA, Wikimedia Commons

Every year the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) holds a ‘Conference of the Parties’ or ‘COP’ to come together, discuss, debate, and attempt to pass legally binding environmental legislation. As the 28th such conference, one might suggest this would be a smooth-running, pragmatic process by now. This iteration of the acclaimed international climate ‘festival’ could, however, be described as more akin to a circus.


Firstly, there is the location. Dubai, UAE. Contrasting to the Gulf stereotype, the Emirate of Dubai’s economy is highly diversified, largely due to investments in the financial and international trade sectors, as opposed to the ‘oil state’ reputation it may have had (which once made up 50% of its economy). Consider the number of flights that stopover at Dubai International Airport - a modern ‘Aero-Constantinople’ of the East meeting/getting-to the West, or the substantial push for tourism (Burj Khalifa et al.), and this starts to make sense.

On a larger scale, Dubai is an outlier in the UAE, where petrochemicals still make up a third of its GDP, but recent economic growth has actually largely come from non-oil sectors. The usual hot winter weather in Dubai is currently peaking at around 29°C, and amongst air-conditioned rooms it’s likely not to stir delegates emotions on climate change; opposed to Paris 2015, where an exceptionally warm winter is said by some to have pushed forward the Paris Climate Accords.


COP28’s placement in the UAE is situated in a string of international event-hosting to increase Middle Eastern legitimacy; with the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar (and Saudi Arabia in 2034, amongst their push for sport-specific diplomacy), and the Riyadh Expo 2030 (with the previous Expo in Dubai 2020 – marking the city as a significant crossroads for international events). 


Then there is the COP28 President, Sultan al-Jaber, Chief Executive of Adnoc, UAE’s state-owned oil company. If the notions of ‘UN climate conference’ and ‘CEO of state oil company’ seem contradictory to you, then join the bustling crowd of environmentalists, climate scientists, NGOs, and the whispered words of many diplomats from the non-OPEC world. Sultan al-Jaber, who previously lead the UAE’s renewable energy effort, has already overseen multiple controversies this conference. The BBC reported (around the start of the conference) that Rystad Energy, a leading oil market intelligence company, has released 2050 global forecasts, showing that the UAE is predicted to be the 2nd largest oil producing country - it is currently 12th. To do so, the UAE must “aggressively expand” their capacity for production. Naturally, this is not a favourable look for the Presidency of a conference dedicated to the goal of capping global warming at 1.5°C, and where the ‘phasing-out of fossil fuels’ has become a key talking point in recent years.

Multiple sources claim that the UAE planned to use COP28 as an opportunity for striking Adnoc oil and LPG deals with other nations – a clear deviation from the intended conference purpose. As with every United Nations situation, wording is continually debated and phrasings exploited, and to this end, Sultan al-Jaber has discussed the ‘phasing-down’ of fossil fuels. Indeed, his comments on the ‘lack of science’ around ‘phasing-out’ fossil fuels and their relevance to the goal of 1.5°, reported by the Guardian in the run-up to the conference, caused significant backlash, resulting in the President calling an unplanned ‘crisis-PR-style’ presser to address these claims. Finalised this week, the landmark ‘deal’ of COP28, for the first time in the COP series, is explicitly targeted towards fossil fuels, and continuing the ‘phase-out/down’ debate, opts for a weaker stance – failing to call for a phase-out and instead for a ‘transition away from fossil fuels’.


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival for diplomatic talks with UAE and OPEC+ officials took the limelight earlier this week, marking a rare appearance for the International Criminal Court sanctioned individual. The Russian President is able to freely visit the Arab nation due to its signed-but-not-ratified status regarding the Rome Statute of the ICC. Perhaps surprisingly, Putin has urged Arab leaders within the OPEC+ group to limit daily oil output, encouraging voluntary cuts. Analysts have stated that Putin’s attendance marks a cosying-up of Russo-Arab powers, with the UAE and Russian states in particular controlling a significant percentage of the global oil market. 


The Russian entourage is not the only controversial grouping to attend this year, with official delegations from the oil and gas industry greatly increased upon the previous conference. Alongside Adnoc executives (including the President of COP28), representatives from state-run oil companies made their presence known, with Exxon Mobil’s Darren Woods, CEO of the largest private fossil fuel company, attending for the first time also. With such emphasis on the large turnout of this sector, one might have confused this event – dedicated to the mitigation of climate change - with a fossil fuel trade show. The ‘theme’ of this year has strongly been all about oil and gas, with both national and private companies stating pledges to reduce emissions (whilst also planning to greatly increase production – how these are possibly compatible is up to the reader). Methane took centre-stage in these talks as a likely ‘red-herring’, where oil execs extensively focused on blaming the potent greenhouse gas for emissions - a well-considered distraction strategy, shifting the focus from their drilled products. Yet, Methane was not included in the final deal of COP28, perhaps another sign of the power of the oil industry in the decision processes this year.


Earlier in the year, Christian Aid launched #StopRugbySinking, a campaign for the Rugby World Cup 2023 to highlight the danger of sea-level rise to the rugby nations of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. The humanitarian and economic threat posed by sea-level rise is existential, and yet COP28 seems to be more concerned with talks on ‘Responsible Yachting’. Incredulously, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber today passed the final deal, noting no objections, whilst the 39 countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (including Samoa, Tongo and Fiji) were not present in the room. After, Samoan lead representative Anne Rasmussen criticised the deal and questioned how it had passed without their presence, noting “you just gavelled the decisions and the small island developing states were not in the room”.

Has COP28, with its ‘gentrified’ lectures, mass oil industry representation, and President that may (or may not) believe in proven climate science turned into a Davos rerun? Maybe a watershed moment was the US Climate Envoy John Kerry’s speech on strategy for commercialised nuclear fusion as a power source – a potential ‘OPEC-killer’ – and something that is of great concern for the great oil and gas cohort in attendance, who seemingly have successfully ran a coup d’état on this particular conference. Nuclear Fusion, having been mentioned for the first time at a COP, is now likely to have an influx of global interest. US Envoy John Kerry finished his COP28 with a joint presser with the Chinese delegation, highlighting the vital importance of Sino-American cooperation moving forwards (and a representation of warming relations following a few difficult years for diplomacy between the two nations). We also finish another COP without addressing proper financing of climate adaption, much to the criticism of activists and many spectators. So, has this COP been a failure? The agreement on fossil fuels is surely a move in the right direction, but the influence and power that the oil and gas industry have held this conference is a worrying precedent to set. Officials from groups such as the Alliance of Small Island States, EU, and worldwide climate scientists will likely hope that this ‘petrostate’ conference (both in location and policy) is anomalous, and yet, the next COP is in Azerbaijan, famous for its oil and gas exports.





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