Shortly preceding the pivotal concluding assembly of the Cop28 climate summit, an apparently serendipitous encounter occurred in the heavily fortified VIP lounge adjacent to the primary conference hall in Dubai. John Kerry, the American emissary for climate affairs, and Sultan Al Jaber, the Cop28 president, exchanged cordial salutations with Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud, the energy minister of Saudi Arabia.
Although it was a short meeting, it solidified a significant realization. Saudi Arabia, who had hindered efforts for three decades to incorporate fossil fuels into global climate agreements, was no longer going to impede this one. Sources report that just one day prior, Al Jaber was heavily pressured by the Saudi delegation to weaken the language of the text. However, now, for the very first time, the traditional oil-producing country would permit a worldwide pledge to “shift away” from fossil fuels.
Minutes later, Al Jaber strode on to the stage where more than 190 countries awaited him. A short announcement, and it was done: the 28th conference of the parties under the UN framework convention on climate change had achieved something no other climate meeting had. Amid applause and relief, the world’s governments had finally agreed to call on countries to begin “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.
The agreement was accepted by Saudi Arabia, the US, and the United Arab Emirates, but it was not well-received by all parties. Indigenous communities and climate justice organizations deemed it unjust and unequal. While climate experts recognized the significance of the commitment to move away from fossil fuels, they also expressed concerns about its lack of strength in keeping global warming below the 1.5C threshold set in Paris. Scientists noted that the statement was ambiguous, lacking specific goals or timelines for reducing emissions. They also criticized the plan’s heavy reliance on carbon capture technology and promotion of natural gas as a “transition fuel,” despite the need to leave most gas reserves untouched.
The group representing the Alliance of Small Island States, which includes nations at risk of sea level rise at temperatures above 1.5C, strongly criticized the “numerous loopholes” in the text. Although they did not attempt to block the final agreement, Anne Rasmussen of Samoa, speaking on behalf of the group immediately after the deal was sealed, expressed their disappointment that the agreement did not sufficiently address the issue: “We have made a small step forward from the norm, but what we truly needed was a significant and rapid change in our actions and support.”
The leader of the UN development programme, Achim Steiner, stated that some may feel frustrated that the agreed upon language could have been stronger. However, it still stands as the clearest indication yet that the world is progressing past the use of fossil fuels.
The ultimate agreement also incorporated a $700 million commitment to establish a new fund for addressing the consequences of climate disasters in impoverished and vulnerable countries. However, this was the only significant action taken regarding climate finance, which is necessary for these countries to transition to a low-carbon economy and cope with the effects of the climate crisis. The lack of attention to adaptation, as promised, was a major source of discontent for poor countries.
According to Harjeet Singh, the director of strategy for Climate Action Network International, developing countries that rely on fossil fuels for energy, income, and employment are lacking reliable guarantees for sufficient financial aid in their crucial and fair shift to renewable energy. The end results are unsatisfactory in holding wealthy nations accountable for meeting their financial duties, which add up to hundreds of billions.
Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy, stated that adhering to these resolutions regarding fossil fuels will have a significant effect. She emphasized that the message is now unmistakable: renewable energy is the future, and fossil fuels are assets that will be left behind.
The agreement was not flawless and was in a delicate state. There was no assurance until the last minute that it would be achieved. The audience breathed a sigh of relief and gave a hearty round of applause at the declaration. Simon Stiell, the leader of the UN’s climate efforts, embraced a visibly tired but happy Al Jaber on stage. The risky move had been successful.
The omens were not favorable prior to the summit.
Organizing a climate conference in a country known for its significant production of oil and gas may have seemed like a cruel joke. The global efforts to combat the climate emergency have been unsuccessful, while fossil fuel corporations have profited greatly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The possibility of keeping global warming within the relatively safe threshold of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels is now highly unlikely.
This year’s temperatures have been the highest ever recorded, but this is expected to be one of the coolest years for the remainder of the century. Greenhouse gas emissions in the past year reached a record high, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres who stated, “Humanity has unleashed hell upon ourselves.”
The host of the summit, the UAE, is contributing to the issue. It possesses the sixth highest amount of oil and gas reserves globally, and its government-owned oil corporation, Adnoc, is undertaking a significant $150 billion growth project.
Al Jaber holds the position of CEO at Adnoc. When it was announced in January that he would also become the president of Cop, activists expressed outrage. Greta Thunberg deemed it “absurd”, while Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International, stated that if he remains as CEO, it would be equivalent to the UN climate talks being controlled by a national oil company and its fossil fuel lobbyists.
The CEO of Adnoc did not have any reservations. Al Jaber, as a business executive, believed he could bring a proactive attitude to discussions that have been marred by lengthy delays and letdowns. In order to tackle the root of the climate crisis, the oil industry must be involved in the conversation.
It is astonishing that discussions about the climate crisis are not directly addressing the primary contributor, fossil fuels.
In the year 2021, the final agreement at Cop26 in Glasgow included a mention of coal, which is considered the most polluting fossil fuel. However, this success was short-lived as at Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh last year, a coalition of over 80 nations aimed for a complete elimination of all fossil fuels, but failed greatly.
In the beginning of 2023, it was uncertain if Al Jaber would have any success. Instead of discussing the decrease of traditional fuels, he chose to praise the growth of sustainable energy. He proposed that Cop establish a goal of tripling global renewable energy production by 2030 and doubling energy efficiency. (Prior to his position at Adnoc in 2016, Al Jaber helped establish the UAE government-supported Masdar renewables company.)
Many interpreted the renewable energy pledge as a replacement for addressing fossil fuel usage. Al Jaber expressed enthusiasm for expensive and disputed solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, which experts believe will only have a limited role in the transition. Instead of labeling fossil fuels as the issue, he chose to discuss their emissions – a less strong wording.
Al Jaber expressed mixed feelings about the target of keeping temperature increases below 1.5C. While this goal is crucial for countries at risk, in a recent interview in Abu Dhabi he admitted uncertainty about whether it can be achieved. He believed that the current and future presidents of Cop should remain dedicated and make every effort to reach this goal.
The overall impression was that despite Al Jaber’s confident and sometimes boastful public image, he would ultimately deliver a lackluster Cop. Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who led the 2015 Paris summit, publicly criticized him in May for his “very dangerous” position.
She stated that he is attempting to multitask by dancing on two different dance floors simultaneously. He wants to convey the message that those who produce fossil fuels will be held accountable for their emissions by implementing better carbon capture and storage methods. Additionally, the Cop presidency will also promote zero carbon alternatives.
At the halfway point meeting in June, held at the UN’s climate headquarters in Bonn, the outlook was grim. There was no clear indication of whether or not fossil fuels would even be discussed at the Cop. Critics questioned what could be expected with an oil executive leading the charge.
As global leaders began to arrive in Dubai for the initial days of the Cop28 discussions on November 30th, Al Jaber’s language had changed. He declared at numerous public gatherings, “My guiding principle is to stay within 1.5C. The phasing out of fossil fuels is both inevitable and crucial.”
Numerous developing nations expressed their trust in Al Jaber, noting that he actively listened to their concerns, a quality lacking in past Cop leaders. He embarked on a comprehensive worldwide listening journey, visiting both small islands and major economies, engaging with Indigenous individuals, young representatives, women, and those from marginalized communities.
According to the Guardian, Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, was involved in rejecting the idea of relying on CCS (carbon capture and storage). His research showed that it would cost approximately $4 trillion annually to use this technology to enable fossil fuel companies to keep functioning. In private conversations, Birol referred to CCS as “an illusion” and “a fantasy”, which he also expressed publicly.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) assembled a group of experienced consultants. In particular, the United Nations (UN) intervened to assist Al Jaber in achieving significant results at the Cop.
A crucial duo and opposition from Saudi Arabia
Although Al Jaber’s beginning was shaky, his counterpart at the UN was always focused. Simon Stiell, a previous government official and lead negotiator for Grenada, currently serves as executive secretary for the UNFCCC. He possesses a deep understanding of the organization’s complex processes and is dedicated to promoting climate justice with eloquence and fervor.
During meetings at Cops, the executive secretary and host country president work together to guide discussions and reach consensus, with the president listening to conflicting parties and the secretary leading the process.
Paul Bledsoe, a former climate advisor for the Clinton White House who currently teaches at American University, stated that Stiell and Al Jaber were an ideal team for achieving success in the negotiations. Stiell was highly regarded as a fair mediator, particularly by developing nations, and Al Jaber had a special ability to garner support from other oil-producing countries.
The main focus for Cop28 would be a lesser-known aspect of the Paris agreement referred to as the global stocktake. This process, outlined in article 14 of the 2015 pact, involves a thorough evaluation every five years of the advancements – or lack thereof – made in reducing emissions to meet the temperature targets.
The inventory check led to the significant development of Cop28 – the decision to “move away” from using fossil fuels, essentially phasing them out, according to one diplomat. However, it was ultimately due to Stiell that this decision was able to be made.
Countries had submitted about 170,000 pages of their concerns; Stiell oversaw their distillation into three short reports. Buried in them was a reference to the need for a fossil fuel phase-out. Stiell had carefully prepared the ground.
When discussions began in Dubai, approximately 130 nations formed a weak alliance to push for a gradual elimination. Meanwhile, the EU and US, along with other countries, suggested adding the term “unabated” which would allow for carbon capture and storage (CCS), a less strict approach that caused frustration among certain developing countries.
As the two weeks of discussions approached their conclusion, the leadership presented its initial written proposal for the worldwide assessment decision. It was a failure.
Fortunately, the text removed the word “unabated” and avoided mentioning CCS in close proximity to the main requirement of reducing both the use and production of fossil fuels. However, in the diplomatic language used for the overarching binding directive, the mention of fossil fuels was presented as one of several potential courses of action, stating that parties should consider taking steps such as the main requirement.
“That one word ‘could’ just kills everything,” said Eamon Ryan, Ireland’s environment minister. “It’s not anywhere near ambitious enough.” None of the pro-phase-out group of countries could accept it.
One country could: Saudi Arabia. The Guardian has learned that its head of delegation “appeared pleased” with the draft at this key point.
The group in charge of the presidency then initiated a vigorous series of negotiations. It became evident that the draft required significant strengthening.
In the early morning of Wednesday, a revised text was created which eliminated the problematic “could” and instead urged for a shift away from fossil fuels. While this is still not as strong of a directive as some would prefer, it is an improvement from the previous version. The Saudis faced a difficult situation as publicly condemning the Cop would strain relations with their ally, the UAE, and potentially expose them as the main contributor to climate change on a global scale.
Later, Kerry downplayed the involvement of the US, stating, “I did have a meeting this morning with HRH Prince Abdulaziz, but it’s possible that it had no impact. They may have simply wanted to get rid of me. Who knows?”
Not many people are certain. However, following the meeting, an insider claimed that after withstanding “enormous pressure,” Al Jaber was able to convince Saudi Arabia to withdraw their objections of 30 years. As a result, the text was able to be approved.
After the conference ended, Al Jaber went back to his residence in Abu Dhabi. He resumed his role as the director of an oil company that is aiming to achieve the fifth largest growth in oil and gas production globally.
Many people see this as hypocritical behavior. Critics argue that Saudi Arabia only agreed to the Cop28 deal because they have no intention of actually following through with it. Al Jaber faced criticism just before Cop28 for allegedly using the negotiations to make oil deals, but he denied these accusations. Al Gore, a well-known advocate for climate action and former US vice-president, stated that [Adnoc] is waiting until the end of Cop28 to launch a massive expansion, despite being one of the most polluting and irresponsible companies in the world. He called this a deceptive tactic.
The most important concern for the world is what comes next. In the past, there has been a recurring pattern at UN climate negotiations where countries dissatisfied with a decision in one year attempt to undo it in the following year. This often results in progress being reversed after initially moving forward.
The upcoming year is expected to be particularly difficult. The hosting duties have been assigned to Azerbaijan, a country heavily reliant on oil and gas with 90% of its export income and 60% of its national budget coming from these resources. While the UAE sought a successful United Nations climate summit, showcasing their accomplishments on a global level, the expectations of the Azerbaijani government for the Baku Cop may differ significantly.
No matter what occurs, nations must not delay for police to make sufficient advancements in order to put an end to the use of fossil fuels. It is not only our production, but also our consumption of coal, oil, and gas that must decrease. Unless governments, businesses, and individuals make the decision to shift away from fossil fuels in a timely, well-funded, and equitable manner, strong demand will keep the fossil fuel industry thriving. In the meantime, time is running out and emissions are still on the rise.