/ 8 December 2023

People power needed to boot the fox out of the henhouse

Cop28 In Dubai Un Climate Conference Day 6
Fuelling destruction: A protest at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Dominika Zarzycka/Getty Images

The United Nations’ major annual climate summit, the Conference of the Parties (COP), is supposed to be the place where world leaders come together to tackle our planetary ecological crisis. 

This year at COP28, however, it seems we have put the fox in charge of the henhouse. 

Not only is the summit hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a major petrostate, the UAE also put Sultan Al Jaber in charge, who is the head of their state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc). In other words, an oil baron is serving as the president of the COP28 climate talks. 

The conflict of interest couldn’t be clearer. Yet, defenders of Al Jaber and UAE have argued that having someone like him at the helm is key to bringing fossil fuel companies to the table and that the country is committed to climate action. 

For those who have closely followed the dealings of coal, oil and gas companies, it’s hard to believe that they have suddenly become good-faith actors. For decades, they have blocked action, spread misinformation and greenwashed their polluting corporations. 

Showing for the umpteenth time that a leopard does not change its spots, a recent report by the BBC revealed how UAE officials aimed to use the COP28 talks to negotiate oil and gas deals. 

Then, Al Jaber went off script, denying what the climate science says we must do — rapidly move off fossil fuels if we are to stand any chance of keeping warming to the vital 1.5°C target agreed to by the world’s nations. Al Jaber subsequently claimed he does in fact agree with the scientific evidence that we must move away from fossil fuels. 

However, his actions at the head of Adnoc tell a different story. Instead of reducing fossil fuels, Adnoc has one of the biggest oil and gas expansion plans in the world — further out of line with keeping warming to 1.5°C than any other company. 

It’s not just the UAE and Al Jaber that are corrupting COP28, though. A recent report showed the fossil fuel lobby has showed up in force at the conference. They sent nearly 2 500 lobbyists, more than four times than in any past year and nearly 14 times the number of representatives of the UN itself. 

Several countries also brought oil and gas companies as part of their official country delegations. France brought fossil fuel giants such as TotalEnergies and EDF as part of its delegation. Italy brought a team of ENI representatives. And the EU brought employees of BP, ENI and ExxonMobil.

While those fossil fuel companies will tell you that they are there to help achieve climate action, their actions belie this. A recent UN Environmental Programme report showed that by 2030 the fossil fuel industry is collectively planning to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels than is compatible with keeping warming to 1.5°C. 

Fossil fuel companies will try claim they are leading the transition to renewables too. However, recent analysis shows that, last year, the oil and gas industry only invested a meagre 2.5% of its total capital spending on renewables. The rest was spent keeping us hooked on fossil fuel pollution, which reached a record high this year.

The evidence is clear. Fossil fuel companies are trying to set the world on a fiery course for absolute climate disaster, while pretending they’re climate champions. We cannot allow polluting corporations to trick us into believing their ruse through greenwashing, clever marketing  and misinformation. 

As veteran climate activist and writer Bill McKibben points out, this summit should “end any pretence” that fossil fuel companies and petrostates are engaged in good-faith efforts. Rather, “the only hope for this COP — and really for this planet — is that our revulsion at revelations like these somehow spurs the movements necessary to break the power of Big Oil”.

In response to the capture of the UN climate process, both civil society groups and prominent politicians, such as former US vice president Al Gore, have proposed banning fossil fuel companies from attending, unless they meet strict requirements such as having a real net-zero plan, spend their profits on the energy transition and stop greenwashing and anti-environmentalist lobbying. 

The power of Big Oil extends far beyond the halls of COP28, though. For example, an investigation by the Center for Climate Research showed a devious plan by the UAE’s close ally, Saudi Arabia. Its Oil Development Sustainability Programme involved hooking developing African and Asian nations on fossil fuels. 

In the words of Mohamed Adow, head of PowerShift Africa: “The Saudi government is like a drug dealer trying to get Africa hooked on its harmful product … The rest of the world is weaning itself off dirty and polluting fossil fuels and Saudi Arabia is getting desperate for more customers and is turning its sights on Africa. It’s repulsive.”

Who counts as a fossil fuel lobbyist is also not always so clear. 

Oil on water: COP28 president and fossil fuel firm head Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/Getty Images

In a recent briefing, I detailed how the ANC is deeply invested in fossil fuel companies. Some examples include investments in Shell through its Batho Batho Trust, in Seriti coal mining through its Thebe Thebe Trust, and in coal power construction through its (corrupt) Chancellor House investments in Hitachi. 

The ANC’s biggest donor is Patrice Motsepe, a mining magnate heavily invested in coal. 

In addition, the ANC is deeply involved in United Manganese of the Kalahari, a joint mining venture tied to a shady network of companies that leads back to sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, a close friend of the Kremlin. 

These sorts of financial interests might help explain things like the ANC’s recent R3.7 billion dodgy deal with Russia’s Gazprombank and its broader allegiance to the interests of coal, oil and gas corporations over climate justice. 

Ironically, it is the activists who point out this conflict of interest who are accused of being “foreign-funded agents” by the likes of fossil fuel cheerleader Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe. 

The ANC seems to be learning from its petrostate autocrat friends about how to prevent pesky civil society organisations getting in the way of their fossil-fuelled agenda. They are proposing an authoritarian “spy bill” that would empower the shadowy State Security Agency to have draconian surveillance, monitoring  and regulatory authority over civil society.  

What’s clear, when surveying both international government processes and our own ruling party, is that they are dominated by fossil fuel interests. 

If we are to deliver climate justice at the speed and scale required to avert the worst of the climate crisis, we cannot sit back comfortably complacent that politicians and corporations will deliver for us.  

The tiny window to avert the worst of the climate crisis gets smaller every day, and the already devastating harm deepens with every wasted moment. Before it’s too late, we must build true people’s power so we can reclaim our government institutions to deliver climate justice in our lifetimes, rather than climate chaos for generations to come.  

Alex Lenferna is the general secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and a post-doctoral researcher in the Nelson Mandela University department of development studies.