DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When the chief executive of an oil company runs a UN climate summit, sparks are bound to fly.
Sultan Al Jaber, the president of COP28 being held in Dubai, took center stage at the UN climate summit earlier Monday to defend his support of climate initiatives.
Al Jaber, who is also the CEO of the United Arab Emirates state-owned oil company Adnoc, came under fire after controversial comments became public around how “there is no science” or “scenario” saying that phasing out fossil fuels will achieve global climate targets.
He made those comments during a live online event on Nov. 21, roughly a week before the UN climate gathering kicked off; they were published by the Guardian on Sunday.
The comments alarmed climate advocates in Dubai and led Al Jaber to pull together a press conference to defend his “respect for the science” and his record of saying that fossil fuels are on their way out.
“I have said over and over that the phase down and phase out of fossil fuels is inevitable,” Al Jaber told reporters at COP28 on Monday. This transition is vital. This transition must be well managed, orderly, fair and just. I am quite surprised at the constant and repeated attempts to undermine this message.”
Before the the conference started, Al Jaber also denied a report that Emirati officials used COP28 meetings with other countries to promote oil and gas deals, as well as renewable energy projects.
“COP28 President Al Jaber’s science-denying statements are alarming and raise deep concerns about the presidency’s capacity to lead the UN climate talks, at a time when leadership and a clear vision are most needed,” Romain Ioualalen, Oil Change International’s global policy lead, said in a statement. “Of course, denying science has been part of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook for decades. But science is not up for debate: we must phase out fossil fuels to have a livable planet.”
The controversies underscore the central debate at the UN climate summit in Dubai. Nearly 200 countries are trying to reach a deal that calls for shifting economies away from fossil fuels, the main cause of the climate crisis. UN scientists warn that countries must make that transition quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2030 and avert catastrophic levels of global warming. They are still far from the mark.
Al Jaber claims he is on board for a fossil fuels deal. But climate advocates are skeptical, in part because Adnoc is planning to invest $150 billion over the next five years on its offshore oil and gas fields.
This seems inconsistent with the report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ,which found that existing and planned fossil-fuel infrastructure emissions are enough to exceed global climate goals. The Paris Climate agreement calls for limiting global temperatures to 1. 5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustral levels. The world has already warmed by 1. 2 degrees, the IPCC said, and caused substantial loss and damage from deadly floods, drought, wildfires, and other disasters.
A spokesperson for Adnoc told Business Insider that the company is spending some of its $150 billion investment on maintaining its existing oil and gas operations. Adnoc is also investing $15 billion on reducing the carbon intensity of its operations and on low-carbon technologies like hydrogen, geothermal, and renewables.
Al Jaber was joined by Jim Skea, chair of the IPCC, during Monday’s press conference, who said the COP28 president has been “attentive to the science.”
Skea said that under a 1. 5-degree warming scenario, fossil fuel use is “greatly reduced and unabated coal is completely phased out.” Oil is reduced by 60% and natural gas by 45%, he said.
“Unabated” refers to emissions that are not captured at the smokestack. Many climate activists see carbon capture projects as an expensive and unproven distraction away from cheaper and more available renewable energy.
Oil and gas companies like Adnoc and ExxonMobil are investing in carbon capture technologies, partly because they could be granted a license to operate within a more environmentally friendly world.
During the online event, Al Jaber argued that a complete phase-out of fossil fuels wouldn’t allow sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves.”
The exchange was with Mary Robinson, the chair of the Elders group and a former UN special envoy for climate change, during an event hosted by the nonprofit She Changes Climate that advocates for greater female representation in climate policy.
Robinson said the climate crisis is disproportionately hurting women and children because the world hasn’t committed to phase out fossil fuels.