Imagine hosting a major football final featuring crowd scuffles, bad behaviour by players, angry coaches, blame for the referee, a scrappy game where the fans can’t see most of the action, and a penalty shoot-out that neither team wins.
The annual Cop climate conference is something like that.
On May 23, some members of the US Congress and European Parliament signed a letter to US President Joe Biden, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the UN Secretary General and the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – not to the UAE, as hosts.
They made two demands: that Dr Sultan Al Jaber, President-designate of Cop28, be withdrawn; and that corporate interests should be scrutinised and provide audited reports on their political influencing activities.
The annual Cops were not always so high-profile, or contentious.
Watch: Six months to Cop28: Here's what to expect at the climate summit in Dubai
Cop1 in Berlin in 1995, presided over by a promising young German environment minister named Angela Merkel, had 3,969 attendees, more than half of them media. Cop3 in Kyoto, which gave rise to the famous protocol, attracted about 10,000.
About 10,500 delegates and 13,500 observers attended Cop15’s “Hopenhagen” in the Danish capital in 2009.
But it ended in grave disappointment, a failure to agree on a global climate pact to replace the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol. Blame was widely spread: the US under President Barack Obama, China, India and hosts Denmark were all accused.
More than 30,000 appeared at Cop21 in 2015, when the crucial Paris Agreement gave new life and direction to global climate policy.
Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh last year drew the biggest crowds so far: 49,704. But more than 80,000 people are expected in Dubai in November.
Cop has swollen beyond its original purpose: now each annual event is at once an international climate negotiation, a venue for protest and activism, and a green trade fair.
The confusion between these three aspects partly explains lawmakers’ concerns.
Their letter advances Dr Al Jaber’s role as head of Adnoc as the argument against him; he is not credited as founding chief executive and now chairman of Masdar, one of the world’s largest international renewable developers.
Through initiatives such as Masdar, its highly successful solar and nuclear power programmes, and the Middle East’s first commitment to a net-zero date, the UAE probably has among the most constructive approaches to climate change of any major oil exporter.
Most Cop presidents have been politicians, often environment ministers, sometimes prime ministers. This has not obviously produced better results.
The closest to Dr Al Jaber’s profile is probably the Cop18 president, Abdullah Al Attiyah, Qatar’s former energy minister and architect of its liquefied natural gas industry.
Doha was relatively successful, with an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, and important recognition that climate-vulnerable countries were owed financial compensation by polluting countries.
The missive repeats the zombie statistic initially created by Global Witness that 636 “fossil lobbyists” attended last year’s Cop27.
Their definition was so broad as to snare almost anyone: attendees from an African utility that uses mostly hydropower, think tanks on sustainability, and developers of solar, wind, hydrogen, nuclear or carbon capture from companies that have other activities.
This is a clue to the signatories’ mindset: an inquisition looking for heretics who might doubt that anything other than renewables and electric cars is required to tackle the climate problem.
Since virtually all credible scenarios from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for keeping global warming below 1.5ºC include significant shares of carbon capture, nuclear power and carbon dioxide removal, any organisation opposing these would fall under the letter’s scrutiny of “proven vested interests that contradict the goals of the Paris Agreement” – including most environmental campaigning groups, such as Greenpeace.
The legislators’ audience is not the UAE. Their intention is to win battles back home, where the sole obstacle to climate progress is portrayed as the nefarious influence of fossil fuel lobbies.
In fairness, many in the US petroleum and coal industries and their politicians have a shameful record on downplaying or distorting climate science and opposing action.
But the Nationally Determined Contributions created as part of the Paris process are exactly that – national.
If regions such as the EU continue to import oil, that is not the fault or the responsibility of oil producers who have increased their capacity in response to political and market requests.
It’s remarkably western-centric to misread Dr Al Jaber as an Emirati equivalent of the chief executives of ExxonMobil or coalminer Peabody.
Here, a lesson from Copenhagen should be instructive: Mr Obama’s team took their failure to heart, got past the blame game to understand the needs of China and India, and eventually secured the Paris Agreement.
So what can the UAE do to run a successful event – the “Cop of implementation” it aspires to? Following on from Dubai Expo 2020, there is no doubt it will be efficiently organised. It should give room to diverse and dissenting voices, as the Cop28 team has already said it will do.
For the negotiation, key issues include delivering much more finance to developing countries for climate adaptation, and committing to triple global renewable energy by 2030, as Dr Al Jaber has outlined as a priority.
The global stock take, a process every five years, will show that despite progress, we are well short of our mountainously challenging goals. More constructively, the stock take should identify the reasons for failure, and solutions.
Much attention will focus on the wording of declarations. The European Council advocates “energy systems free of unabated fossil fuels well ahead of 2050”. Carbon capture and storage, carbon dioxide removal, and hydrogen are part of such systems.
With a suitable definition of abatement, this is a goal the UAE can support, as should China, India, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Japan, the US, the UK, Norway and many Middle Eastern and African states.
Such a broad coalition would counter allegations of “greenwashing” or fossil fuel lobbying. Even if the American and European lawmakers’ letter raised concerns, the best answer will be real, undeniable progress.
Robin M. Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis