Unquestionably, the almost-friendly initial jousts between parties at Cop28 came to an abrupt end with the push of a “web publish” button.
The story came from the Guardian, revealing that Cop28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, negotiator in chief at the climate talks in Dubai, had declared there is “no science” indicating a phase-out of fossil fuels is needed to restrict global heating to 1.5 degrees.
To put the cap on it, he said phase-out of fossil fuels would not allow sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves”.
There was a distinctly Irish angle. Al Jaber was commenting in response to incisive questions from Mary Robinson, chairwoman of the Elders group, during a live online event on November 21st. The ill temper of the exchange was firmly on the side of the Cop28 president, who also happens to be chief executive of UAE state oil company Adnoc.
Robinson won’t be receiving red-carpet treatment when she arrives at Cop28 later this week, but that won’t bother her. The skirmish is yet another chapter in her consistent calling out the world’s biggest carbon polluters.
What is most disturbing about the exchange is his view is at such variance with clear-cut science, and what is necessary to rein in global warming and to have a chance of establishing a sustainable planet. In short, if the world wants to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, X, Y and Z needs to happen – especially a phase-out of fossil fuels swiftly.
There are many within national delegations (including negotiators) and climate-activist ranks who would agree with the view his comments are “incredibly concerning” and “verging on climate denial”. Climate scientists point to indisputable scenarios set out by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency, while small island states promise they will hold Al Jaber to account.
Many believe it was a “mask-off” moment when the true colours of a state actor, and proxy for the oil and gas sector, indicated his true position. That would be a gross simplification of the controversy.
In diplomatic terms, yes it is problematic and clearly at odds with the position of UN secretary general António Guterres, whose line, “the 1.5-degree limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce. Not abate. Phase out – with a clear time frame aligned with 1.5 degrees” has become the mantra of an emboldened majority of states who now favour “phase-out” rather than “phase-down”.
As soon as the story broke on Sunday, the Cop28 presidency went into damage-limitation mode, notably by pushing the line it was yet another attempt to undermine the presidency’s agenda, “which has been clear and transparent”.
The director general of the summit, ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi, did not initially want to answer questions on it at an early morning press conference on Monday but later told reporters: “There are those out there who are consistently trying to undermine our presidency from day one. The Cop presidency has been very clear that 1.5 degrees is the North Star. [Al Jaber] has also been very clear about how fossil fuels are on the agenda.”
Remarkably, he insisted: “What he was talking about was, of course, net zero [emissions in] 2050. It’s very clear in all of the scientific reports that fossil fuels are going to be part of that mix. And he has spoken very clearly that he thinks the phase down of fossil fuels is inevitable. He is the CEO [of Adnoc], he’s the person who understands the science, he understands the industry. In that conversation, what he was asking simply was, how do we do this?”
In a subsequent press conference, Al Jaber claimed he was misrepresented and gave an impassioned defence of his background and belief in the science. He said he had “incredible respect for Mary Robinson” after he was accused of being arrogant towards the former Irish president when he said there was no scientific need to phase out fossil fuels, adding: “I was very honoured to receive her invitation to speak in a discussion around climate and gender.
“Let’s just clarify where I stand on the science ... I honestly think there is some confusion out there and misrepresentation. Let me first introduce myself to you. I’m an engineer by background. It’s the science and my respect for the science and my conviction for the science and the passion for the science that have allowed me to progress in my career.”
Outside that cauldron, climate specialist Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute said people should not lose heart, as depressing as the remarks may have been. In an “eyes on the ball” tweet, he added: “You should judge Cop28 by the outcomes, not some comments by the President. To claim Cop28 is a sham is to claim all 197 governments are fooling the world, but we already have many real outcomes including capitalisation of the loss and damage fund, declarations on finance etc.”
At this early stage of Cop28 there is a lot of gains already bagged. Perhaps most significant is acknowledgment by Al Jaber “a phase-down and a phase-out of fossil fuel in my view is inevitable. That is essential. But we need to be real serious and pragmatic about it.”
This is a notable first from a representative of a giant petrostate within the context of climate change – and most especially at a Cop, where in the past such parties remorselessly stalled progress and weakened text outcomes.
In what could be interpreted an “eyes-on-the-prize” interview, former US vice-president Al Gore has said agreement by countries to phase out fossil fuels would be “one of the most significant events in the history of humanity”.
While he said it was is “absurd” to put a fossil fuel company CEO in charge of Cop28, it would be a “welcome surprise” if world leaders agreed at the climate talks to call for an end to fossil fuels; such a declaration would have “enormous impact” on the world.
“If there were a decision here to surprise the world to say: ‘OK we get it now, we’ve made enough money, we will get on with what needs to be done to give young people a sense of hope again and stop as much as suffering as possible and start the phase-out of fossil fuels’, it would be one of the most significant events in the history of humanity,” he added.
Uproar over Al Jaber’s comments aside, it indicates what needs to be bridged in immensely difficult negotiations over coming days. The momentum for such a significant outcome is building, but too many past Cops suggest Big Oil will not be going quietly into the night.
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