Why is COP28 being held in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates?

As negotiators arrive in Dubai, doubts persist about the decision to hold UN climate talks in a major oil-producing nation.

COP28 is likely to see heated debate over whether governments should commit to a phase-out of fossil fuels whose emissions are not captured and stored, but push-back is expected from countries with economies dependent on oil, gas and coal. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Representatives from nearly 200 nations are gathering for COP28, this year’s annual UN climate conference, which is being held in the oil-producing United Arab Emirates and led by the head of the country’s state oil giant.

Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) chief Sultan al-Jaber - the COP28 president - is also founding CEO of Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy firm Masdar.

He has said the world will have to phase down its use of fossil fuels as it tackles climate change, but activists are concerned that putting an oil-producing nation in charge of the UN talks could slow down that energy transition.

The UAE is not the first big fossil-fuel state to host a COP. Natural gas-rich Qatar hosted COP18 in 2012, while the summit has taken place three times in coal-reliant Poland.

“Hosting the climate talks in an oil-producing country could be transformative if that country was actually committed to phasing out fossil fuels. The UAE is not,” Jamie Henn, director of environmental group Fossil Free Media, which opposes the fossil fuel industry, told Context in emailed comments.

But Rachel Kyte, a sustainable energy and carbon markets expert who has advised the UN secretary-general on climate change, said the UAE could use COP28 to push the oil and gas industry and governments that rely on fossil fuel extraction to commit to being “at least part of the solution”.

At an October meeting to prepare for COP28, Jaber urged governments to find “common ground” to resolve disagreements over the future of fossil fuels and work out language on that and renewable energy for the text to be negotiated in Dubai.

Here’s what you need to know on why the UAE is hosting COP and what it could mean for efforts to tackle climate change:

How are COP hosts and presidents chosen?

Every year for the past 28 years the signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gather for the Conference of the Parties to the Convention, also known as COP, choosing a different host and president each year.

Hosting the climate talks in an oil-producing country could be transformative if that country was actually committed to phasing out fossil fuels. The UAE is not.

Jamie Henn, director, Fossil Free Media

The COP rotates between regions, with countries from each of them choosing who will make their bid to host the meeting - a plan that then has to be signed off by a global committee of regional representatives hosted by the UN climate secretariat.

If no country in the relevant region offers to host the conference, it is usually held in the seat of the secretariat in Bonn, Germany.

Usually, the country or countries hosting the conference hold the COP presidency, as in the case of the UAE this year.

The UNFCCC website says the role of the incoming COP president includes raising ambition to tackle climate change internationally and “developing a vision for the best possible outcome of the meeting”.

What do critics say?

More than 100 members of the US Congress and European Parliament called in May for Jaber to be removed as COP president, saying his appointment would harm the integrity of the negotiations, which are attended by tens of thousands of climate activists, heads of state and business executives.

In an open letter, the lawmakers voiced “profound concern” that private sector polluters - including fossil fuel firms - would be able to “exert undue influence” on the talks, even as scientists warn of the accelerating impacts of global warming.

This year is set to be the warmest year since records began in 1940, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

The UN Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 set the goal of limiting temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times while “pursuing efforts” for a tougher ceiling of 1.5C (2.7F).

To achieve that goal requires cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 from 2019 levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - and would require countries to ramp up their plans to phase out the extraction and use of fossil fuels - coal, oil and natural gas.

But this month the annual UN Emissions Gap report, which assesses countries’ promises to tackle climate change compared with what is needed, said the world faces between 2.5°C and 2.9°C of warming if governments do not cut emissions faster.

Critics say putting an oil-producing nation at the helm of the COP could make it harder to meet global climate targets.

“There were a lot of concerns about the (COP) president’s potential conflict of interest due to his role in an oil and gas company,” Alex Rafalowicz, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, said in emailed comments.

An investigation by Britain’s BBC broadcaster and the nonprofit Centre for Climate Reporting on Monday said the UAE had tried to leverage its role as COP28 host to strike oil and gas deals at meetings with governments, citing leaked documents.

A COP28 spokesperson said in an email that the documents cited by the BBC were “unverified” and had not been used by the COP28 team during meetings.

Where does the UAE stand on phasing out fossil fuels?

COP28 is likely to see heated debate over whether governments should commit to a phase-out of fossil fuels whose emissions are not captured and stored, but push-back is expected from countries with economies dependent on oil, gas and coal.

Global fossil fuel production in 2030 is set to be more than double the level deemed consistent with meeting goals set under the Paris Agreement, said a report released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and climate experts this month.

It analysed 20 countries that account for 82 per cent of global fossil fuel production and 73 per cent of consumption, among them the UAE, the United States, China, Britain, Australia, Norway and Qatar.

The UAE’s ADNOC plans to boost oil production capacity to 5 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2027 from its current 4 million bpd as part of a US$150-billion investment plan, the report said.

Jaber said this year that a phase-down of fossil fuels is inevitable and essential, but as part of a comprehensive, thought-out energy transition plan that takes into account the circumstances of each country and region.

“One size fits all will not work so we need to be flexible and agile,” he told Reuters in October.

Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network, an international coalition of green groups, said Jaber had responded to civil society concerns in the run-up to COP28, shifting his tone on a fossil-fuel phase-down and showing leadership on boosting finance to address climate impacts.

“He has done really important work in listening, engaging - even if these were difficult issues to address,” she told journalists.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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