In his address to the World Government Summit, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, articulated the UAE’s response to criticism from some activists of Dr Sultan Al Jaber’s appointment as President-Designate of Cop28.
Sheikh Saif outlined why the group chief executive of Adnoc, one of the world’s largest national oil companies, is the best person to lead the deliberations at the largest global climate conference. If recent events in the UAE are any indication, Cop28, to be held in Expo City Dubai in November, is set to be the best-ever edition of the Conference of Parties.
Sheikh Saif pointed out that Dr Al Jaber has been at the forefront of the UAE’s efforts to ensure the right balance between energy production and environmental preservation. He helped establish Masdar and led its mission to advance the adoption of renewable energy and clean technologies locally and globally. One of the world’s largest developers of renewable energy projects, Masdar is making significant contributions to expanding energy access in emerging markets and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Dr Al Jaber also led a transformational initiative to embed sustainability at the heart of Adnoc’s operations. All these achievements made him the best choice for the UAE’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, a role he currently holds.
Dr Al Jaber’s track record will make him an effective leader at Cop28 in facilitating the negotiations necessary for uniting the world in taking ambitious and practical actions to resolve global environmental challenges.
To gauge the importance of what the UAE is trying to achieve, we need to first understand the challenges that previous Cop conferences faced, especially before the breakthroughs achieved at Cop21 in Paris in 2015 and Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt last autumn.
The failed attempts of western nations to impose a carbon tax on oil-producing countries in the late 80s and early 90s was aimed at making them bear the full responsibility of carbon emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels. The move would have absolved the role of oil-importing nations, especially industrialised countries, in global emissions. To resolve the stalemate, the global community began discussions to hold an international conference to reach a consensus on tackling climate challenges. This led to the organisation of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, which marked the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm Agreement and the launch of the UN Environment Programme in 1972. The Rio Summit established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and set the Cop process rolling.
The Earth Summit issued the Rio Declaration on environment and development aimed at reaffirming the Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, adopted in Stockholm in June 1972. The Declaration was a progressive statement that promoted principles such as the centrality of human beings to the concerns of sustainable development and the importance of the environment for current and future generations. It also outlined the responsibility of nations to ensure that their activities do not cause damage to the environment of other nations and areas beyond their jurisdictions.
Starting in 1995, Cops were held annually to bring together three parties – governments, civil society organisations and universities – aimed at reaching common ground on actions needed to protect the environment and limit the consequences of climate change.
These conferences rose in importance with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which operationalised the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by committing industrialised nations to legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of 6-8 per cent between 2008 and 2012. However, the US Congress delivered a fatal blow to the process when it refused to ratify the agreement despite then president Bill Clinton signing it in 1998. His successor, George W Bush, rejected the Protocol.
By 2012, when the emission cuts stipulated in the Protocol were supposed to have been achieved, Cop18 in Doha failed to reach an agreement on an amended version that stipulated a 15 per cent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. A handful of nations, including the US, refused to accept this pledge on the pretext of excluding China, India and Brazil from it.
However, there was a breakthrough at Cop21 in 2015, when 55 nations signed the Paris Agreement, aimed at holding the average global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Additionally, governments committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and their carbon output. Despite the success, then US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in a setback to efforts to forge global consensus on climate change action.
Discussions at subsequent Cops were characterised by a “blame game” in which rich nations blamed poor ones, developed countries blamed developing ones, and oil consumers blamed oil producers. Intergovernmental discussions at these conferences ended in failure.
Cop26, held in 2021 in Glasgow after a one-year delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, saw sharp criticism from civil society groups allegedly acting at the behest of some western governments seeking to impose their conditions on the conference. These countries were able to impose their points of view with the final statement of the conference mentioning fossil fuels as the main causes of climate crises. The statement promoted a biased narrative that put the blame for environmental challenges on oil-producing nations and downplayed the role of oil-consuming countries.
Going into Cop26, poorer nations had renewed their calls for financial help from richer nations to adapt to the effects of climate change. They also sought to establish a fund for developed countries to compensate developing ones for areas harmed by climate impacts. But the discussions failed to make significant progress on both issues.
Negotiations were renewed at Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh, where disagreements were more pronounced than before, as key western nations refused to address their moral obligations. A proposal to phase out all fossil fuels was not approved, while negotiations went down to the wire regarding climate finance. Nevertheless, Cop27 ended with a historic decision to establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund, particularly for nations most vulnerable to the climate crisis, based on a Chinese proposal.
However, participating nations failed to reach an agreement on ways to keep the average global temperature rise within 1.5°C. They also couldn’t agree on financing the protection of forests. Further, members couldn’t agree on whether China and India are obligated to help countries affected by emissions or countries eligible for climate finance.
Cop28 provides another opportunity to discuss these vital issues. Drawing from his experience of leading Adnoc’s transition to a more sustainable model and steering Masdar’s renewable energy projects, Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber will lead negotiations on adopting an inclusive, action-oriented global approach to combating climate change.
His experience gives him an understanding of the role of hydrocarbon companies in advancing environmental preservation and facilitating energy transition at a time when the global economy continues to be dependent on fossil fuels, at least in the short term.
Dr Al Jaber’s experience in the renewable energy sector places him in the best position to understand the critical requirements for reducing emissions and limiting the average temperature increase on the planet. His informed perspectives and 360-degree understanding of the positions of various parties make him ideally suited to mediate negotiations between nations at the global conference.
Jessica Obeid, senior global adviser for London-based consultancy Azure Strategy, regards this approach as a "much-needed policy alignment”. Dr Al Jaber’s multiple roles represent the various elements at play in this era of energy transition. Ms Obeid says that an adequate transition should involve all sectors, including the oil and gas industry, and low-carbon technologies must be developed and deployed in this industry.
It’s also worth noting that despite being an oil producer, the UAE’s economy is not entirely dependent on revenues from its hydrocarbon resources, with 70 per cent of its GDP coming from non-oil sectors. All of this adds to the country’s impeccable environmental credentials and its status as a nation committed to abiding by the Rio Declaration’s principles.
The criticism of Dr Al Jaber’s appointment by some civil society groups reflects their unwillingness to explore practical solutions to climate change. Their remonstrations focus on blaming the oil and gas sector alone for climate change, ignoring the role the industry can play in promoting sustainable growth. They also fail to address the disastrous impact the abrupt suspension of oil and gas production can have on the global economy, especially in the absence of suitable alternatives.
As Dr Al Jaber has reiterated, the world needs to work together to reduce emissions from current energy sources while simultaneously expanding production capacities for clean energy, enabling sustainable economic growth, and involving everyone, especially developing countries, in finding solutions to climate change.
The UAE’s clear vision gives us the hope that Cop28 will generate positive outcomes. It is our duty to contribute to the success of this conference, given that its discussions will have a lasting impact on the future of humanity.