/ 19 July 2023

Phase out, don’t phase down fossil fuels as Sultan Al Jaber states, say his critics

Sultan Al Jaber
: Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, President-Designate of the UNFCCC COP28 climate conference and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, speaks at the UNFCCC SB58 Bonn Climate Change Conference on June 8, 2023 in Bonn, Germany. The conference, which lays the groundwork for the adoption of decisions at the upcoming COP28 climate conference in Dubai in December, will run until June 15. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

Governments attending the United Nations climate conference in Dubai later this year must be “brutally honest” about the gaps in tackling climate change, said the United Arab Emirates president-designate of COP28.

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber was delivering his keynote speech at a climate ministerial meeting in Brussels on Thursday, where he set out his country’s long-awaited action plan for the COP28 summit. This plan is “guided by a single North Star and that is keeping 1.5°C within reach”.  

He said nations must apply a “far-reaching, forward-looking, action-oriented and comprehensive response to address these gaps proactively”.

The “incremental” steps taken so far to address the climate crisis “are not meeting the urgency of the moment”. 

His action plan is based on four pillars: fast-tracking the energy transition, fixing climate finance, focusing on adaptation to protect lives and livelihoods and inclusivity.

The world must disrupt business as usual and unite around decisive action, said Al Jaber. “We need to … break down silos that are slowing progress and we need to bridge divides that are blocking critical breakthroughs.” 

Fast-tracking the transition

On fast tracking the transition, he stressed that “we must be laser-focused on building the energy system of the future, a system free of unabated fossil fuels, including coal, using all available technologies while we rapidly decarbonise the system of today”. 

Al Jaber called for the tripling of renewable energy output to 11 000 gigawatts, the doubling of energy efficiency measures and the doubling of hydrogen production to 180 million tonnes a year by 2030. The world must use every “emission busting tool” available, including nuclear, battery storage and carbon capture and removal technologies, especially for the hardest-to-abate sectors, he said. 

Al Jaber’s appointment to the helm of COP28 has drawn condemnation from climate campaigners and civil society groups because he is also the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

In his speech, Al Jaber called for a comprehensive transformation of climate finance instead of piecemeal reform and said there should be a special focus on supporting climate-positive development across the global south to ensure that developing nations can have access to affordable and available climate finance to drive a just transition.

To help the world’s most vulnerable withstand the effect of climate change, he called on donors to double adaptation finance by 2025, emphasising the urgency for donor country governments to honour their commitments and close out the $100 billion pledge this year.

Roland Ngam, the programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the nonprofit Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa, said Al Jaber “is an oil man representing a country that made its money essentially through fossil fuels”, the main culprit for global warming. 

“But then the Conference of the Parties is an association of nations and … nations have many flaws, as exemplified by the many UN meetings that we see every day. That said, multilateral processes are important and although they are often painfully slow at getting to critical decisions, we still need them.”

Very little progress

Brandon Abdinor, the acting programme head of pollution and climate change at the Centre for Environmental Rights, told the Mail & Guardian, that despite 27 COP gatherings and many of the right things being said in political statements, “very little progress has actually been made in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reduction”. 

Global emissions continue to grow instead of decline by the necessary 8% a year to stabilise warming at about 1°C. 

“Despite the incontrovertible knowledge that the bulk of global warming is caused by burning fossil fuels, there are no tangible global commitments to phase them out, and the best that has been managed so far is a lacklustre commitment to ‘phase down’ the combustion of coal.”

The fossil fuel industry continues to maintain and even expand fossil fuel production, and to mislead the public and hamper greenhouse gas reduction efforts. “The COP28 president is the CEO of Adnoc, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, which in 2022 announced the investment of an additional $150 billion dollars for the expansion of fossil fuel production.” 

Given what the science says about the urgency and the avenues for reduction actions, the use of the term “phasing down” instead of “phasing out” is weak and dangerously inadequate, because it maintains the status quo approach of deferring and delaying immediate action, he said.

“Also, highlighting the phasing down of demand shifts responsibility away from the fossil fuel companies,” he said. “While it is true that the entire system, including all governments and the business sector, must come into alignment with this need, it is disingenuous for the head of a carbon major that is expanding fossil fuel production to attempt to dilute accountability in this way.” 

Hydrogen potential ‘exaggerated’

On Al Jaber’s mention of scaling up low-carbon hydrogen, Abdinor said any reliance on hydrogen in a decarbonisation context “must be so called green-hydrogen that is synthesised using exclusively renewable energy. Substituting the generally recognised ‘green’ label for ‘low-carbon’ opens the door for the use of hydrogen that is synthesised using fossil fuels, perpetuating the problem.” 

The use and potential of hydrogen is “generally exaggerated” and it has little meaningful place in discussions outside of certain hard-to-abate industrial sectors and possibly certain transport applications.

Al Jaber’s emphasis on carbon capture and storage and carbon dioxide removal technologies are “nowhere near proven” to be able to play a meaningful role in the necessary decarbonisation of the energy system, and which also get used to defer and delay action.

More urgency

Ngam said that “given the baking hot summers that we are witnessing in Europe and America, the droughts in the Horn of Africa and Madagascar as well as the floods that we have witnessed in South Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere”, there is a sense among nations that “we need to move with more urgency in dealing with climate change”.

He said Al Jaber has stated that COP28 is an opportunity to revisit past decisions and commitments to ramp up implementation, instead of making more decisions. “Countries need to make significant cuts to CO2 emissions and announce new nationally determined contributions (NDCs),” which are national climate action plans.

Ngam also said that it is crucial for countries to honour their pledges and contribute money to developing countries for climate action. He also believes that “loss and damage” which was a fund adopted at COP27 must receive the money it needs.

Geopolitical outlook

In a context characterised by energy crises and Russia’s war in Ukraine that has caused Western Europe to scale back oil and gas imports from Russia, it is difficult to see COP28 coming up with any significant changes, Ngam said. This is because some of the biggest economies in the world, including Germany, the US, France, India and China have all increased coal, oil and gas production at home or abroad. 

“Energy projects typically lock in emissions decisions for decades. How do the big economies achieve their NDCs without structural changes to their economies? It is not possible.”

This probably means a number of things. “The parties shall announce future cuts to NDCs and sell them as a success. There will probably be more Just Energy Transition Partnerships announced and funded by the very countries that are burning more fossil fuels today than ever before [they have to show everybody that they are doing something].”

Some countries will make contributions into the adaptation and mitigation funds, and the loss and damage fund could be announced as well. “However, it remains to be seen how many governments are going to be bold in this area, especially given the rise of right-wing governments in many countries.” 

On whether this is going to be a decisive COP that significantly moves the needle, Ngam “doubts it”.