‘The phase down of fossil fuels is both essential and inevitable’: COP28’s Razan Al Mubarak

In this exclusive interview ahead of the contentious COP28 talks, UN Climate Change High-Level Champion Razan Al Mubarak says the world needs to be honest with ourselves that “we are off track”, outlines her thoughts on the state of global climate affairs and the hoped-for outcomes of the negotiations ahead.

UN High Level Champion Razan Al Mubarak
UN High Level Champion Razan Al Mubarak has spoken frequently on women representation in the climate discourse and across all segments of society. Image: IUCN 

This year’s United Nations climate summit, known as COP28, is less than two months away and never has a COP presidency attracted as much controversy as the current one hosted by the UAE.

While the choice of Sultan Al Jaber, chief of the country’s national oil company Adnoc, as the COP28 president continues to attract debate and headlines, another prominent figure who has been laying the groundwork for the high-stakes negotiations is Razan Al Mubarak, officially assigned UN Climate Change High-Level Champion.

Razan is also the managing director of Abu Dhabi’s environment agency and the current president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). She is the first Arab woman to lead the global organisation and has been a vocal advocate for nature and conservation efforts on the international circuit.

She has spoken frequently on women representation in the climate discourse and across all segments of society. “At a local level, women’s participation can lead to better resource governance and conservation outcomes. And in the private sector, higher percentages of women on corporate boards improves the disclosure of carbon emissions information,” she wrote recently in an op-ed.

Razan is also the daughter of Khalifa Ahmed Abdulaziz Al Mubarak, a former UAE ambassador to France who was assassinated in 1984 in Paris, and her family is among Abu Dhabi’s ruling elite. The UAE is the world’s seventh biggest oil producer with the fifth largest gas reserves and has built its economy entirely on fossil fuel-derived wealth.

In recent years, the spotlight, however, has been on how the country has made huge investments into the energy transition and renewables sector. It recently announced a plan to invest US$54 billion in renewables over the next seven years as part of an overall strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

As the designated high-level champion for the COP process, Al Mubarak plays a key role in mobilising state and non-state actors – including cities and sub-regional governments, Indigenous peoples, civil society – to address the climate and nature crises together.

She has stated that one of her priorities would be to advance the Sharm El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda – the first comprehensive global plan to rally both states and non-state actors behind enhancing resilience for our planet’s 4 billion people – and ensuring this is done in a just and inclusive way.

All eyes are on how the UAE will manage the contentious UNFCCC negotiations – slated to be held at Dubai’s Expo City from 30 November to 12 December – where the oil industry’s presence, the loss and damage fund, and the first ever global stock take of climate targets since the Paris Agreement will be in the spotlight.

The key target for this meeting will be ensuring that the global agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times becomes a reality. The COP28 presidency, Razan has said, is “mobilising for an inclusive COP”.

“These steps to support women’s leadership and participation get us closer to our goal and, I believe, will also have a positive impact on future rounds of the climate talks and on climate activism in general.”

In this exclusive interview with Eco-Business ahead of the COP28 meeting, Razan shares her thoughts on the highly-anticipated meeting, her role at IUCN and the need to phase down all fossil fuels. 

Anticipations are high for this year’s COP28. As the appointed UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for the COP28 Presidency, what is your vision of a successful meeting? 

We have made great strides with the Sharm El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda, agreed upon at COP27, but now we must build more momentum to help rally countries and non-state actors behind adaptation and resilience work. We must also address the losses that have already occurred due to the impacts of extreme weather like cyclones, droughts, floods, wildfires and extreme temperatures. Last year, COP27 established a loss and damage fund, and now we must move forward on filling the fund and disbursing resources in a timely and effective manner. Of course, none of this can be achieved without securing capital, and finding ways to raise “just” finance will be a top priority.

These are all pressing issues, and it is imperative that inclusivity be at the heart of everything we do. Climate change affects every person on this planet, and it is crucial that we design climate action strategies that involve and empower everyone – the Global North and the Global South, women, youth, Indigenous communities and more. This is the only way forward in order to make a just transition, and we will be looking for ways to facilitate knowledge sharing and building capacity in communities across the world.  

Where do you think are the areas that have made the most and least progress on international climate cooperation? 

We are making significant progress in advancing renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and transitioning to more electric vehicles. However, these solutions will only get us so far and challenges remain. For one, we need to ensure we expand solar and wind infrastructure without harming the environment. Additionally, the demand for more electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads comes with an increased demand for rare earth minerals like lithium to power their batteries – and, historically, mining for rare earth minerals has devastated forest ecosystems and threatened local vulnerable communities. Thus, it is imperative that we work together to put environmental safeguards in place to ensure we do not inflict the same damage caused by the fossil fuels industry. 

At the same time, we must accelerate the adoption of nature-based solutions. Large-scale conservation, restoration, and sustainable management of our ecosystems can effectively complement other climate initiatives, helping us to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement by 2030.

Are there specific actions that IUCN can help shape which will improve the COP process?

Until now, the conferences on climate and biodiversity have operated mostly in isolation from one another. However, IUCN and other leading voices have emphasised the imperative of seeking climate solutions that simultaneously address both pressing issues. Climate change and biodiversity loss are intricately linked, and addressing them together is paramount. By recognising this interdependence and fostering collaboration between climate and biodiversity efforts, we stand a better chance of forging a sustainable and harmonious future for our planet, one that protects both the climate and the rich tapestry of life on Earth.

To that end, I am especially proud that the UAE will co-host the 30x30 Ministerial with the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People. This crucial initiative will assess the commitments made at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15. It is our shared goal to ensure that donors deliver US$20 billion in funding by 2025 as part of all countries enabling US$200 billion (of funding) by 2030. This significant financial support will propel us forward to implement vital conservation projects around the world, many of which are nature-based solutions that support climate mitigation and adaptation.

Historically, mining for rare earth minerals has devastated forest ecosystems and threatened local vulnerable communities. Thus, it is imperative that we work together to put environmental safeguards in place to ensure we do not inflict the same damage caused by the fossil fuels industry. 

What is your take on calls to phase down all fossil fuels, especially given the Middle East’s reliance on this energy source? There is understandably a lot of scepticism that ambitious action will be taken. 

I, of course, support the science. The phase down of fossil fuels is both essential and inevitable. It must be responsible, by ensuring energy security, accessibility and affordability, while sustaining socioeconomic development.

There has always been a recognition that oil will one day no longer be available. We need to rapidly build the energy system of the future, one that is free of all unabated fossil fuels, while comprehensively decarbonising the energy that we use today. 

The UAE has been preparing for this transition for a long time. Today, 70 per cent of its economy comes from sources other than oil; it is it home to three of the largest and low-cost solar plants in the world; and it has invested US$50 billion in renewable energy in 70 countries. It will invest another US$50 billion in renewable energy over the next decade. 

The Global Stocktake has defined our challenge. The world needs to eliminate 22 gigawatt (GW) of emissions in just seven years. This will require a supercharged energy transition that is just, fair, well managed and leaves no one behind. 

Having the UAE host COP28 is an important opportunity to engage with the industries and people who understand most about our current energy system, and contribute to the solution.  

How will you drive specific action for the first-ever Global Stocktake at COP28?

It is now clear that we are lagging in meeting critical targets. Getting back on track and addressing these gaps will require changes not just in energy and transportation, but also in how we farm, build, manufacture, invest, and conserve and restore nature. COP28 will be the first time that countries will assess collective progress toward achieving the Paris Agreement’s key goals by participating in the Global Stocktake. 

The stocktake presents a unique opportunity for us to anchor the role of nature-based solutions for the Paris Agreement and invite national governments to enhance nature targets in their national climate pledges. It is also imperative that we ensure that the Global Stocktake acknowledges the contribution of local governments, businesses, Indigenous peoples, and local communities in supporting national governments. This will help reduce the gap on climate action so that we can reach the goals of the Paris Agreement in time. 

What are your goals for COP28 to operationalise loss and damage funding especially for developing countries?

At COP27, the international community agreed to establish the Loss and Damage Fund in recognition of supporting climate-vulnerable countries who have been severely affected by climate disasters. At COP28, it is critical that we see an outcome on the operationalisation of this fund and its funding arrangements. Most importantly, we must ensure support for communities facing climate impacts that cannot be adapted to, recognising that some damage is beyond mitigation or adaptation efforts. A priority will be to ensure early pledges to the Loss and Damage fund, and to inspire others to follow. 

Furthermore, to complement the efforts of parties operationalising the fund, we, as high-level champions, are working to identify sources of private finance and investment for loss and damage. At COP28, we are working to highlight the actions non-state actors and non-party stakeholders are already taking to address climate loss and damage, or actions after impacts.

These actions need to address all losses and damages from extreme climate events and slow onset changes including damage to our economies, culture, heritage, health and ecosystems – these all do have an economic value.

At COP28, it is critical that we see an outcome on the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage fund and its funding arrangements… A priority will be to ensure early pledges to this fund, and to inspire others to follow. 

Since COP27, the world seems to be more focused on climate adaptation funding than accelerating mitigation. What does this show about the global community’s interest in keeping global warming under 1.5°C? Are we too late?

There is no doubt that we must increase action on climate adaptation, as people across the world are already experiencing the devastating effects of a warming world. This is why we are seeing an increased focus on adaptation including the launch of the Sharm El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda at COP28.

This is not in stead of an acceleration of action on mitigation – which is essential if we are to keep global warming under 1.5°C and avoid increased impacts. We must have both increased action on mitigation and adaptation. 

For example, through nature-based solutions, we have the opportunity to address both mitigation and adaptation through the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of ecosystems. Simultaneously, we can save money and time, as most nature-based solutions are more cost-effective and faster than human engineered solutions. 

Nature knows what it is doing. Already, it captures more than half of all human-sourced emissions. If implemented at scale, nature-based solutions could contribute up to 37 per cent of the climate mitigation efforts we need to meet the standards set by the Paris Agreement by 2030.

Take for example, the 17,000-acre Mangrove National Park in my home city of Abu Dhabi. This area acts as an effective carbon sink, and is an example of a local initiative that is contributing to global efforts to mitigate climate change.

At the same time, we are already seeing the positive contributions that nature-based solutions can have on impacted communities. For example, a restored oyster reef off the coast of southern Bangladesh is helping local people become more resilient to rising sea levels. Similarly, replenished wetlands in Nepal provide protection against floods and droughts.

However, we know that nature-based solutions are not a universal remedy in the fight against climate change. We must continue to invest in the expansion of both renewable energy and green transportation, and unfortunately, we are lagging behind on both. Nonetheless, I am confident that the Global Stocktake will help get us back on track to address these gaps.

Do you think we are preparing enough for a post -1.5°C world?

We need to be honest with ourselves and the Global Stocktake is telling us we are off track. We know from the 6th IPCC assessment report that the temperature has already increased by 1.1°C. If we want to remain under a 1.5°C increase, we must step up our efforts.

We need to leverage nature-based solutions to accelerate progress and help us scale and level up our innovations to achieve 37 per cent of the mitigation requirements we need to keep 1.5°C alive. But we need money to achieve this – we are going to need to triple our annual investments in nature by 2030 in order to tackle the climate, biodiversity loss and land degradation crises.

We need to be honest with ourselves and the Global Stocktake is telling us we are off track. 

How do you feel about the state of global climate affairs today?

As we see climate catastrophes making the headlines more regularly, it is clear that we must address the urgent issue of rising temperatures. We still have the opportunity to turn the tide in addressing climate change, especially with the implementation of nature-based solutions, which will help our planet heal and thrive. But we need to act now and as a global community.  

As I always say, climate change is a whole-of-society problem, and it requires a whole-of-society solution.

With the COP28 platform, we are embracing the power of nature to combat climate change and create a more sustainable future. By championing biodiversity, supporting local communities, and fostering financial commitments, we can make a profound difference. We look forward to a successful COP28 that results in a specific and achievable action plan for building a healthier and more resilient world.

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