“Wait!’” we hear you cry. “At a time when the need for urgent climate action is apparent — the heat index in the Middle East on July 18 reached 152 degrees F (67 degrees C) — the next head of a critical climate conference will be an oil executive? Is this a joke?” The answer is yes, that is exactly what is happening here, and no, it is not a joke.
The backlash against Al Jaber has been strong. The optics of this situation are just all wrong. What were the people who made this decision thinking? But before you turn away in disgust, give a listen to what Al Jaber told The Guardian recently:
“Phasing down fossil fuels is inevitable and it is essential — it’s going to happen. What I’m trying to say is you can’t unplug the world from the current energy system before you build the new energy system. It’s a transition — transitions don’t happen overnight, transition takes time.”
Al Jaber started the storm of criticism shortly after he was named to head the conference when he said the world’s emphasis should be on lowering fossil fuel emissions instead of a phaseout of fossil fuels themselves, which is a key demand of more than 80 countries.
Al Jaber told The Guardian he welcomed the scrutiny. “When we signed up to the hosting of COP 28, we knew exactly what we were signing up to. I don’t think there has ever been a country that has hosted the COP that did not get this type of pressure or heat from activists and media, so that’s part of the game. The scrutiny sometimes also makes us dig deeper into issues, understand better, analyse more to draw better conclusions. Never have I said that I have all the solutions, or I have all the answers.”
Last week, Al Jaber met with representatives from 40 nations to lay out his specific proposals for COP 28, which fell into four main topic areas.
COP 28 & The 1.5°C Goal
The Paris agreement required countries to hold global temperature rises “well below 2°C” above pre-industrial levels, while “pursuing efforts” to stay within 1.5°C. At COP 26 in 2021, world governments agreed to focus on the more stringent goal of 1.5°C. Since then, some governments have tried to refocus the discussion on 2°C, but Al Jaber has made it clear from the outset that his plan is based on the tougher goal. “This plan is guided by a single north star, and that is keeping 1.5°C within reach,” he told the assembled ministers and government officials.
Kate Hampton, chief executive of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, who contributed to the COP 28 plan, said, “The commitment to 1.5°C is particularly important. The presidency has recognized it is time to accelerate the essential and inevitable end for fossil fuels. The challenge now for the presidency is to ensure delivery across a comprehensive agenda, which can only be achieved with a transformational plan for mobilizing finance.”
At COP 28, governments will conduct for the first time a “global stocktake” that will set out the progress countries have made on the emissions reduction commitments — known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs — they made in Paris.
The stocktake is certain to find that the world is way off track to meet its Paris goals, but the COP presidency has decided against naming and shaming individual countries. Instead, all countries will be required to submit updated NDCs in September that are sufficiently tough to meet the 1.5°C goal. In line with that requirement, the UAE itself has submitted a revision to its NDC that contains emissions reductions of 40% compared with a business-as-usual approach.
Phase Out Or Phase Down?
Al Jaber emphasized that this effort would entail “the phase down of fossil fuels,” which he said was “inevitable and essential.” The wording is significant. He was heavily criticized two months ago for repeatedly referring to the “phase out of fossil fuel emissions,” which observers took to mean that oil and gas companies could carry on extracting fossil fuels as long as the resulting carbon dioxide was somehow captured. But scientists have warned against using carbon capture and storage technology as a “free lunch” to excuse continued extraction.
Nevertheless, the “phase down” language will disappoint the more than 80 countries that want COP 28 to pass a commitment to phasing out fossil fuels entirely.
Commitments to double energy efficiency, triple renewable energy capacity to 11,000 GW globally, and double hydrogen production to 180 million tons a year by 2030 will be put to governments at COP 28, where they are expected to be agreed to.
COP 28 & Reality
Romain Ioualalen, global policy lead at Oil Change International, told The Guardian, “Recent history has shown that more renewable energy does not automatically translate into less fossil fuels. COP 28 will only be a success if its presidency sets aside the interests of the oil and gas industry and facilitates a clear outcome on the need for a decline of all fossil fuel production and use, as well as a rapid phase-in of wind and solar. The only way we’ll build a new energy system that is both clean and fair is by actively phasing out the old.”
Al Jaber wants to formulate a plan to get the world’s biggest oil and gas producers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the 1.5°C target — this at a time when those companies are fleeing any promises made previously as they go panting after more and bigger profits from selling their climate-killing products.
To activate his plan, he intends to bring fossil fuel executives to COP 28, despite the objections of many climate advocates who well remember that there were more fossil fuel advocates in Egypt last year for COP 27 than government representatives. The Guardian says if Al Jaber can get the companies to address their duty to the environment, “it would be an astonishing step forward for climate action.”
When Al Jaber first spoke to oil and gas companies earlier this year, he focused on what they could do to make their operations less carbon intensive by improving their extraction efficiency and plugging leaks of methane. These are known as scope 1 emissions, because they are fully under a company’s control. But critics pointed out that approach ignored scope 3 emissions, which are by far the greatest impact of fossil fuels. Those are the emissions created when oil or methane is burned by customers.
Last Thursday, Al Jaber adjusted his message in response to that criticism. “Let us end the reductive discussion of scope 1 v scope 2 v scope 3. We need to attack all emissions, everywhere — one, two, and three.” That is a huge victory for climate activists.
Who Will Pay?
Talk is cheap. It is “put up or shut up” time for fossil fuel companies. Their argument is that the transition to renewables and a phaseout of fossil fuels will be too costly, but that fails to take into account the direct and indirect cost of a warming planet. By some accounts, fossil fuel interests get the benefit of nearly $7.5 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies every year. No less a personage than Elon Musk says it will cost $100 trillion to transition to a zero-carbon economy, but sticking with a business-as-usual approach will cost far more — $130 trillion.
Al Jaber called for “a comprehensive transformation” of the World Bank and other international finance institutions, and for private sector funding to be brought in. He wants to make sure that a commitment by rich countries to provide $100 billion a year to poor nations is finally fulfilled. He also repeated the demand from UN Secretary General António Guterres for a doubling of finance for developing countries to adapt to climate impacts.
COP 27 last year was an unmitigated disaster where oil companies got everything they wanted. Climate advocates are right to be concerned that this year’s conclave will be another debacle. But … Al Jaber is making the right noises. He is talking the talk. Now it remains to be seen whether he can walk the walk. The world has run out of chances to get this right.
Featured image by Kyle Field | CleanTechnica