Protesters and energy bigwigs make their voices heard at Cop28

They may seem at odds but there is growing consensus that momentous changes lie ahead

Activist Ina-Maria Shikongo leads a demonstration against fossil fuels at Cop28 on December 10, 2023. AP
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Listening to the protester inside the ring of steel, also known as the Blue Zone at Cop28, there was no doubting her passion.

What she was saying was straight from the heart. She was part of a group allowed in, marshalled but permitted nevertheless.

Credit to the organisers for letting their dissenting voices be heard – there are plenty of similar gatherings in many locations around the world where such open hostility would not be permitted. Not a chance.

Her message was clear, that at this Cop there are 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance. To applause – from her fellow demonstrators, not from the watching delegates, most of whom seemed tolerant but bemused – she raged.

For me, this has never been and still is not a fight between these two worlds, because we live on the same planet
Mathios Rigas, chief executive of Energean

She protested that she did not know how those 2,456 live with themselves, how they get up in the morning to greet the day, knowing that they are going to do their bit to help destroy the planet.

In return for what? For money. Was that really all that motivated them? They were taking the lucre now but leaving behind a damaged world for future generations. “How could they?”

Meanwhile, in the nearby closed rooms, the organisers, Cop28 President Dr Sultan Al Jaber and his team, were negotiating hard with country leaders on an agreement, apparently, to “phase out” or “phase down” use of oil, gas and coal.

Cop28 is praised for its proactive climate change efforts

Cop28 is praised for its proactive climate change efforts

In that sense, the ringing attack on the industry did not stack up. It would seem to be game over, a question of when, not if, of how, not never. That, of course, is rubbish.

The words from the Cop side may be bullish but that is what they are. It does not mean they are anywhere near securing a deal, not to “phase out”, not completely, not in a recognisably short time frame.

The presence of the 2,456 says as much. They are not at Cop to enjoy the many attractions of Dubai; rather they are at Cop to use their influence, to apply, what in the trade of influencing governments and public bodies is called “nuance”.

For that, read opposition, steering the talks how they would like them, ensuring the fossil fuels sector gets its views across and is heard, and when it comes, trying as much as possible to insert wording and phrasing in the final draft that aids their cause.

Nothing unique about that. It is what lobbyists do, to have a quiet word with a minister here, an adviser there, to impress upon them the consequences, intended and unintended of what is being proposed.

'One cannot work without the other'

What is odd and what has provoked anger, witness the woman protester, was that they were allowed inside the Cop tent, given hallowed passes to mix freely with the delegates. Not in the actual private sessions held by Dr Al Jaber and his colleagues but outside, roaming around, sitting at the coffee stands, in the communal areas, greeting and persuading.

Rather like permitting the protesters to speak, the view was taken on high that they should be welcomed. That points to what is really occurring here in this UAE Cop, the acknowledgement that the one cannot work without the other, that while fossil fuels are a major part of the problem, the solution is not to can them completely, all at once.

That is not how it is universally seen. A letter from Opec has made plain the oil-producing nations animus. Seemingly, it gives little room for manoeuvre. Again, in the coded language that permeates proceedings such as this, the missive is “not helpful”.

Actually, talk to some of those who are present from the fossil fuels producers and they are more amenable. They understand, and they are not closing their minds to what has to happen if the world is to stave off the terrible effects of a hotter climate.

Mathios Rigas, chief executive of Energean, the Mediterranean-focused oil and gas provider, said: “People in this Cop are starting to be more realistic and are starting to come to terms that this is not a fight between renewables and the fossil industry.”

His line, which is heard frequently around the Cop, is that the former can learn a lot from the latter, that fossil fuel producers have the technical expertise and, importantly, the cash, that renewables require.

“It is a collaboration that needs to happen … we need to triple the amount of renewables. We need to decarbonise.

“We need big investments [and] there's trillions of dollars that need to be invested and this is a very complex project that needs the oil and gas industry, to manage them, to fund them to provide the technical capabilities,” Mr Rigas said.

“For me, this has never been and still is not a fight between these two worlds, because we live on the same planet.”

It is not as straightforward as phasing out or phasing down – there are other initiatives that can be taken. Oil and gas companies could do more to cut flaring, responsible for methane emissions that are more harmful than normal carbon.

On being asked about meeting methane and carbon dioxide reduction targets, Farhat Bengdara, the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said: “Yeah, I'm quite optimistic. And I think it's a doable thing. If we are committed, it is a doable thing.”

The NOC is aiming for an 83 per cent reduction in gas flaring by 2030 as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

That view was echoed by Hatem Al Mosa, chief executive of Sharjah National Oil Corporation: “You can get a big bang for the buck if you can reduce methane emissions, and a lot of the methane emissions are just leaks. We just need to fix the leaks.”

Said Mr Mosa: “[In] some places they actually vent methane intentionally. That has to stop. Regulations have to make it a felony.”

Contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed, flaring was not a problem wholly confined to the Middle East, in part but not totally.

“We've actually had almost zero routine flaring since 1995/1996 and we've been fine tuning and finding leaks to reduce the flaring to the absolute minimum,” said Mr Mosa.

“But then you go to the north of the Gulf and flaring is regular, you go to the United States flaring is regular. That, again, should be completely stopped.”

Walk around Cop and there is a willingness to change. The sands really are shifting. It may not be reflected in some of the public posturing but it may, just may, be reflected behind those tightly guarded doors. Here’s hoping.

Updated: December 11, 2023, 6:15 AM