BONN – The United Arab Emirates official tapped to head the next global climate summit pledged Thursday to listen to young people demanding a place at the table when negotiators gather in the Gulf nation this fall, but offered no response to criticism of his links with fossil fuel interests.
In his first appearance at a United Nations climate meeting this year, the UAE's Minister of Industry Sultan al-Jaber said he wants the COP28 summit in Dubai to be "inclusive" and deliver a “game-changing outcome” for international efforts to tackle climate change.
“I’m determined to make your participation successful,” he said in a brief speech to delegates from youth activist groups that have been clamoring for leaders to take drastic action against global warming.
The comments by al-Jaber in Bonn, Germany, drew a wary response from his audience.
“Many people, including children and youth all over the world, are rightly concerned about your ties and links to the fossil fuel industry and thereby the integrity of the (U.N. talks)," Clara von Glasow of the Youth Climate Movement, an international network of more than 1000 campaign groups, told al-Jaber. “This is your time to prove them wrong and show that indeed you are serious.”
“You have the unique opportunity, a huge chance to demonstrate leadership,” she said. "You can become the champion of change and make sure we phase out fossil fuels immediately.”
Al-Jaber, who is also chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, has resisted calls for an end to fossil fuels.
Speaking later Thursday at a diplomatic reception, al-Jaber called for “a just and balanced energy transition that leaves no one behind."
“The phasedown of fossil fuels is inevitable,” he said, going further than countries agreed in Glasgow two years ago when the focus was coal, but still stopping short of advocating a complete ban.
The goal should be a global energy system “free of unabated fossil fuels," he said. The term abated refers to measures taken to reduce or capture greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, an idea that experts say is technically challenging and very expensive.
“There is no such thing as an emissions-free fossil fuel," said Hanna Fekete of the NewClimate think tank. “It is always more efficient to produce renewable energy and to use that directly.”
Fekete published a report Thursday with the group Climate Action Tracker showing that many major producers of oil and gas, including the UAE and the United States, are currently increasing production.
“The sector is acting like there’s a gold rush, not a climate crisis,” the authors warned.
That runs counter to countries' pledge at a 2015 summit in Paris to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times. Scientists say that in order to achieve that goal, carbon emissions need to be halved by 2030 and reach ‘net zero’ by mid-century.
Much of the task of coralling countries into making painful but necessary cuts to their emissions will fall to al-Jaber during the Nov. 30-Dec. 12 talks, when negotiators are due to approve the first global assessment of what's been done since Paris and which gaps still need to be closed. Preliminary talks attended by al-Jaber in Bonn, Germany, have so far failed even to agree on a formal agenda.
Outside the venue, bus stops were plastered with posters highlighting al-Jaber's ties to the oil industry. Inside, activists dropped a huge banner that read “End Fossil Fuels.”
Alden Meyer, a long-time observer of climate negotiations now with the Brussels-based group E3G, said past summit chairs have succeeded best when they've set aside their own national interests to find agreements acceptable to all the nearly 200 countries taking part in the talks.
“There’s a real question whether Dr. al-Jaber wants to do that, is able to do that and is being given permission from the UAE leadership to do that," said Meyer. "He needs to disassociate himself from the UAE as a major oil and gas producer that wants to expand production if he wants to have a successful COP.”
Still, al-Jaber's acknowledgement of the need to “phase down” fossil fuels was a useful first step, Meyer said, adding that a discussion about this needs to happen in Dubai.
His comments were echoed by Mohamed Adow, who runs the Nairobi-based group Power Shift Africa.
“Al-Jaber is right to acknowledge that a phasedown of fossil fuels is inevitable," he said.
“Doing this in a managed way would be good news for the UAE,” he said, noting the Gulf nation has ample sun and wind for renewable energy.
“The clean energy wave is coming,” Adow said. "Countries can either surf the wave or get washed away by it.”