Inconvenient truths: Those opposing Cop28 leadership should face own reality

Cutting oil and gas out of the climate conversation won’t work because – like it or not – they will underpin the global economy for years to come

The UAE's Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is one of the world's largest renewable energy projects. Pawan Singh / The National
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The letter signed by a group of European MPs and Congressional representatives from the US seeking the removal of Dr Sultan Al Jaber from the position of President-designate of Cop28 is simply astounding, at multiple levels.

It is brazenly condescending in that "we know what’s best for you" approach that continues to linger in scattered Western redoubts. It makes sweeping generalisations and tries to scare us into seeing the global hydrocarbons industry as a gigantic, evil monolith. And it deliberately promotes a half-truth by projecting Dr Al Jaber as the chief executive of Adnoc while staying silent about his seminal work to promote renewable energy over the past two decades, first as the chief executive of Masdar and later as its chairman. It clearly finds Dr Al Jaber's position as UAE’s Minister for Industry and Advanced Technology and as the country’s Special Envoy for Climate Change an inconvenient truth that can be brushed under the carpet.

Fossil fuels have, of course, contributed in large measure to the climate crisis in which Mother Earth finds itself today. The industrial revolutions in Europe and the US were powered by coal in the 19th Century and by oil in the 20th century. That is why the US has contributed 24 per cent of global emissions and Europe makes up for 17 per cent. The science on climate change is unequivocal about who is responsible for the present state of affairs.

It is also blindingly obvious that developing countries such as India will have to adopt low carbon pathways for their own development because there simply isn’t any other viable alternative. And yet, where is the money that will enable countries such as India to get access to the latest technology breakthroughs to facilitate the green transition? Where are the resources for the loss and damage being inflicted by extreme climate events upon countries that have a negligible carbon footprint? Let’s not speak about the financial commitments made by the governments of these countries from Cop21 in Paris in 2015 to last year's Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh. That’s an inconvenient truth.

So, here’s a question to the distinguished elected representatives who have signed this letter: what is their view on climate justice? Would they vote for additional taxes on their citizens so that their own governments can live up to promises made since the Paris Agreement? Would they campaign for a change in lifestyles that lowers the carbon footprint of their own citizens?

A disruption in gas supplies following the invasion of Ukraine has already led Germany to permit more than 20 coal-based power plants to resume or extend their operations, in a dramatic reversal of its earlier opposition to coal. Heated homes in Europe and air conditioning in the US are almost an inviolable human right but do spare a thought for the hundreds of millions in the Global South who have minimal or no excess to any energy.

The letter also takes a swipe at the UAE’s plans to increase its oil output but the authors seem to have already forgotten the howls of protest from their own governments last year when Opec refused to increase oil output despite their urging. That almost provoked a diplomatic crisis and sent US President Joe Biden rushing to Saudi Arabia so that oil prices didn’t become an issue in the US mid-term elections.

Higher prices of oil and gas may push the world faster towards a green transition but they make for bad politics. And so the US is quite happy to expand its shale oil and gas output to emerge as the world’s largest hydrocarbons producer by quite a margin in 2022: 20 million barrels a day and counting. That must be an inconvenient truth for the authors of the letter.

Get the fossil fuel industry to deploy its vast technical and financial resources into cleaner technologies

We might ignore their tendency to play fast and loose with the facts, but there is a more serious issue at stake. Even the most staunch supporters of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process would acknowledge that progress on climate action has been profoundly underwhelming. We continue to hurtle towards a climate disaster despite the intentions expressed at each Cop gathering.

Scapegoating the fossil fuels industry just won’t work because oil and gas will continue to underpin the global economy for years to come. I wish electric vehicles would replace all petrol and diesel vehicles, that solar and wind energy and green hydrogen should power everything from tomorrow. But the transition is going to take time and that is another inconvenient truth.

Instead of treating the fossil fuels industry as outcasts who must be kept outside the conversations at Cop28, as the letter suggests, the time has come to try an alternative approach. Make the fossil fuel industry a partner in the green transition. Get them to deploy their vast technical and financial resources into cleaner technologies. Encourage them to walk the talk and hold them accountable.

And that’s where Cop28 and its President-designate can play such a key role. The UAE has shown that it can use its oil wealth to create a new paradigm – an oil-rich country that hosts the International Renewable Energy Agency, that has set up the first nuclear energy plant in the Middle East, that has created an organisation like Masdar to invest in renewable energy projects across 40 countries.

That is the model which needs to be scaled up and replicated by other hydrocarbons industry giants. It is a conversation that is overdue and one that could be best organised by someone like Dr Al Jaber, who has worked in both the fossil fuels and the renewable energy sectors. His presidency could be a unique asset for Cop28. The signatories of the letter must accept that as an inconvenient truth and stop undermining Cop28 before it has begun.

Published: May 26, 2023, 7:20 AM
Updated: June 02, 2023, 6:56 AM