UAE sparks furious backlash by appointing Abu Dhabi oil chief as president of COP28 climate summit

The United Arab Emirates announced Thursday that the head of the state oil giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of the world’s largest oil companies, will lead the COP28 climate talks in Dubai later this year.

The appointment of Sultan al-Jaber as COP28 president-designate provoked a furious backlash from climate activists and civil society groups. Many called on the oil chief to relinquish his role as ADNOC CEO, saying it represents a clear conflict of interest with his COP28 position.

The office of al-Jaber — who also serves as UAE minister for industry and technology and the country’s climate envoy — said he would play a pivotal role in intergovernmental negotiations in order to build consensus at the conference.

The UAE, the third largest producer of the OPEC oil alliance, will host the U.N.-brokered climate talks from Nov. 30 through to Dec. 12.

In a statement confirming his appointment al-Jaber said, “The UAE is approaching COP28 with a strong sense of responsibility and the highest possible level of ambition.”

“Pragmatism and constructive dialogue must be at the forefront of our progress,” he added.

Al-Jaber’s office said the minister had played a “proactive participatory role” at more than 10 COP summits and brings to his role two decades of business and leadership experience in government, climate policy and across the renewable and energy sectors.

The designation has triggered a wave of international criticism:

“This appointment goes beyond putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Teresa Anderson, global lead on climate justice at ActionAid, a development charity.

“The UN Climate Summit is supposed to be a space where the world holds polluters to account, but increasingly [it’s] being hijacked by those with opposing interests. Like last year’s summit, we’re increasingly seeing fossil fuel interests taking control of the process and shaping it to meet their own needs,” Anderson said.

‘Full-scale capture of the U.N. climate talks’

Tasneem Essop, head of the Climate Action Network, which includes more than 1,500 civil society groups, said al-Jaber “cannot preside over a process that is tasked to address the climate crisis with such a conflict of interest.”

In comments quoted by The Guardian, Essop added that al-Jaber’s appointment was “tantamount to a full-scale capture of the UN climate talks by a petrostate national oil company and its associated fossil fuel lobbyists.”

COPs “have always been circuses. Now they are complete jokes,” Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, said via Twitter.

“We need separate standing bodies focusing on energy, transport, deforestation, loss & damage etc, working all year round,” he added. “Not this bloated festival of world leader photoshoots and oil execs.”

Asked for a response to the criticism, a spokesperson to the UAE Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change told CNBC that al-Jaber’s experience “uniquely positions him to be able to convene both the public and private sector to bring about pragmatic solutions to achieve the goals and aspirations of the Paris Climate Agreement.”

They added, “The UAE is committed to an inclusive COP process, with the COP President acting as a global convenor. The UAE’s COP Presidency works with all parties and is committed to being open, transparent and accountable.”

A spokesperson for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was not immediately available to comment.

First global stocktake since Paris accord

Last year’s November COP27 conference in Egypt saw a sharp jump in the number of attendees associated with the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants. It was described at the time as a “twisted joke” that represented the fossil fuel industry’s ability to influence proceedings.

Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is the chief driver of the climate emergency.

The upcoming COP28 summit will be the first Global Stocktake since the landmark Paris Agreement. The 2015 accord aims to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Beyond this critical temperature ceiling, it becomes more likely that small changes can trigger dramatic shifts in Earth’s entire life support system.

The UAE was the first Mideast country to ratify the Paris accord and has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by the middle of the century.

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