Oil Industry’s climate change schizophrenia evident in proposed COP28 head.

The COP28 climate summit, which will be held at the end of the year, is receiving attention in the midst of this past weekend’s Earth Day activism around the world and hand-wringing about the slow progress towards net zero carbon emission targets that are alarmingly slipping out of reach. Of particular note are the United Arab Emirates’ improbable role as host and Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber’s nomination as conference president.

Al-Jaber has won favor with many thanks to his roles as a cabinet minister, seasoned diplomat, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s confidant. Tony Blair, the former leader of Great Britain, claimed to have “both the standing and the capability to offer groundbreaking leadership for COP28.” He has been praised as “a terrific choice” by US special envoy John Kerry.

Environmentalists, however, consider his nomination to be “a breathtaking conflict of interest” as the leader of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), one of the biggest oil producers in the world.

Little solace can be found in the fact that al-Jaber also serves as the chairman of Masdar, a company that invests mostly in solar and wind energy across 40 nations. Adnoc’s board authorized a US$150 billion five-year plan that involves raising the company’s oil output capacity to 5 million barrels per day by 2027, while Masdar says it wants to invest US$30 billion in renewables by 2030.

As part of the plan’s objective to attain net zero emissions by 2050, Adnoc will also pursue low-carbon solutions. On the other hand, the company’s website states unequivocally that it has “a mandate to stay focused on exploring the untapped oil and gas potential of the UAE.”

Al-Jaber cautioned against attempting to move away from fossil fuels too rapidly in a speech last year. He stated that “the world needs all the energy solutions it can get,” emphasizing the necessity for “maximum energy, minimum emissions.”

The extreme schizophrenia among the world’s fossil fuel producers, which has alarmed environmentalists, is exemplified by both al-Jaber and the UAE. Bill McKibben, whose book The End of Nature was considered the first attempt to write about the climate issue for a wide audience in 1989, captured this effectively in a recent Rolling Stone piece.

McKibben offers straightforward math: during the past 50 years, oil companies have made US$2.8 billion each day. They currently have control over reserves that, if burned, would release 3,700 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, which is roughly ten times more than what our atmosphere can metabolize in order to keep below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold required to avoid a climate crisis.

As a result, 90% of such reserves must be left in the ground, stranding assets for fossil fuels with a market value of $100 trillion. According to McKibben, “the people making that money have the incentive and the resources to try to keep [the fossil fuel industry] alive.”

Accepting the UAE as the COP28 host under al-Jaber’s leadership requires a significant leap of faith, to put it simply. When al-Jaber’s nomination was announced at COP28 in January, an official from the UAE noted: “His experience uniquely positions him to be able to convene both the public and private sector to bring about pragmatic solutions to achieve the goals and aspirations of the Paris climate agreement.”

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is currently prepared to suspend disbelief. Executive director Fatih Birol stated in March that “the UAE’s COP28 presidency is a crucial opportunity for the oil and gas sector to show it can take an active and transparent role in tackling climate change.”

However, the IEA’s most recent study, “Credible Pathways to 1.5°C,” is unapologetically honest about the scope of the problem: “There is no credible pathway to limiting warming to 1.5°C without steep and immediate reductions in energy-related CO2 emissions.”

It highlights four crucial pillars to maintain direction. The first step in decarbonizing electricity is to triple renewable energy production to 1,200 GW annually by 2030, or 90% of all new generating capacity.

Second, by 2030, there must be no net deforestation.

Third, the energy industry and agriculture must drastically cut their emissions of other greenhouse gases like methane.

Then, by 2030, we need to raise carbon dioxide capture by 1.2 gigatonnes per year, or 30 times more than we did in 2021.

Even though carbon dioxide emissions rose by 0.9% last year, we are still considerably “off track” according to the IEA’s Birol, who highlighted in March that a larger increase in emissions has been avoided due to the growing adoption of clean energy technology like renewables and electric vehicles.

However, an IEA analysis from the previous year found that only 5% of the capital investments made by oil and gas corporations globally go toward renewable energy.

Al-Jaber has inspired both optimism and worry. He emphasized the need for the fossil fuel industry to “decarbonise quicker, future-proof sooner, and create the energy system of the future today” while addressing attendees at a significant fossil fuel industry conference in Houston last month. He called the situation the industry’s “opportunity to reinvent itself and lead again.” We “cannot responsibly unplug the energy system of today until the system of tomorrow is ready,” he added in an interview following the speech.

How successfully al-Jaber’s conflicts of interest may be resolved will only become clear with time. I hope he can disprove the doubters. My aspirations are not high, either, given the oil industry’s four-decade track record of deliberate denialism regarding the threat of climate change.

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