/ 26 July 2023

The president-designate of the climate change conference is an oil man

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber Getty
COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. (F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties (COP) is the main decision-making body on the climate crisis and it meets once a year. Which means the president of a COP gathering has a crucial job. 

The host rotates among the five UN regional groups — Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Caribbean and Western Europe. The president-designate is selected by the regional group members of the host region.

The president is not a participant but instead an official and does not represent the country they come from. They have a duty to be impartial and neutral, open and close the meetings and work out what order people speak and work with the various teams. 

As the world hurtles toward unmanageable climate change, the gravity of the job cannot be understated. 

Often the role is given to the host country’s minister of environment. Sometimes that person is overlooked, as happened in Egypt last year, when the foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, was selected instead of the environment minister and climate scientist, Yasmine Fouad. As of 2022, only five women have had the job, compared to 23 men. 

So let’s take a peek at this year’s president-designate

The new Cop head

His name is Sultan Al Jaber. He is not the United Arab Emirates’ environment minister; he is the minister of industry and advanced technology. He is also the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the 12th largest oil company in the world — and is the first CEO to be the president-designate of a COP. Okay, he also heads a renewable energy firm.

Al Jaber heads a fossil fuel company in a country that became rich from fossil fuels and is now leading climate negotiations calling for a move away from fossil fuels and to mitigate climate change. 

But he has also recently said in keynote speech at a ministerial climate meeting that the future is clean and green. “We must be laser-focused on building the energy system of the future, a system free of unabated fossil fuels, including coal.” And his action plan is to fast-track the energy transition, fix climate financing, focus on adaptation to protect lives and livelihoods, as well as full inclusivity.

Civil society groups are calling for him to step down and criticised him for saying fossil fuels should be phased down instead of phased out.

The Guardian also reported that “Al Jaber’s dual role has attracted strong criticism, including from the former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, who called his approach ‘dangerous’”.

The French MEP Manon Aubry, told The Guardian: “This is an absolute scandal. An oil and gas company has found its way to the core of the organisation in charge of coordinating the phasing out of oil and gas. It is like having a tobacco multinational overseeing the internal work of the World Health Organization.”

It cannot be understated that him being the head of such an important organisation threatens its credibility on the global scale. 

How he will balance both these roles remains to be seen but critics believe that it is not possible and that we are rushing to unmanageable climate change threatens the entire climate change fight. 

Some of his plans

The criticism is a mark on the weakness of phasing down, with critics believing that phasing out is more powerful. Phasing down means delaying action which invariably speeds up climate change.

There is also the argument that it shifts responsibility away from fossil fuel companies of which he heads up. 

He called the steps being taken to address the climate crisis incremental saying that they are not meeting the urgency we need to abate the crisis. 

Al Jaber needs to address the financing issue with urgency. Funds for loss and damage and for developing nations that will be hard hit must be central at negotiations. It is his job to ensure these pledges turn into real action and countries achieving this much needed funding.

It is something he has mentioned and is widely expected that he will prioritise it.

The fund for loss and damage was tabled at last year’s Cop and will be prioritised at this year’s event. Finance is also expected to be high on the agenda of developing nations. Al Jaber has also called for a transformation of international financial institutions which echoes the Bridgetown Initiative, a global reform on climate finance.

So far he seems to be calling for all the right things. He called for “brutal honesty” at the 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.

A renewable history

Al Jaber is also a renewable player something which his supporters are keen to mention. They believe it is key to note that he heads a renewable energy firm which they believe means he will handle the role objectively and with the seriousness it deserves. 

In his defense he also said that renewable deployment needs speeding up. He called on countries to ramp up renewable energy capacity to 11 000 gigawatts and double energy efficiency by 2030. 

“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,” he said.

He is also quoted to have said “We will leave fossil fuels in their own dust as renewables take center stage.”

Despite his background, it does seem like he is saying the right things for the most part. But acting on it and achieving real change will be the real achievement. Whether he stands by his word will become evident at COP28 in December in Dubai.