This article was originally published in January 2023, when the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber as COP28 president was announced.

COP28 opened on Thursday 30 November in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. For two weeks, at the gates of the desert, the site of the 2020 World Expo becomes the beating heart of climate diplomacy. In total, more than 70,000 people are expected, an unprecedented turnout.

However, for several months now, the choice of the Emirates – a petro-monarchy that ranks seventh in the world – as the host country of this great raout has questioned and worried environmental defenders at a time when the combustion of oil, gas or coal accounts for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This concern was reinforced by the announcement in January of the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) as president of the COP.

This is the first time that the chairman of an oil company has exercised such responsibility in the climate negotiations. "We were very disappointed and we are very worried about the smooth running of this COP," Marine Pouget, in charge of international issues at the NGO Climate Action Network, said in January 2023. "Especially since COP28 was supposed to be crucial. This was the first 'global stocktaking COP', which was supposed to assess countries' climate commitments."

From fossil fuels to renewable energies

However, on the side of the United Arab Emirates, the stated ambition is clear: to make this COP28 a COP as historic as the one in Paris in 2015, and thus to show itself as a good student of the climate in the region.

Although the country is the sixth largest emitter of CO2 per capita on the planet, with 22 tonnes per year per person – just behind Qatar, Kuwait and Brunei according to the Global Carbon Project – it has been trying for several years to shed its image as a major polluter. For example, it was the first Gulf country to announce that it wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. To be kept, this promise would require a reduction of two tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per person.

And despite the controversy surrounding his appointment, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber appeared to be the ideal candidate to carry Abu Dhabi's ambitions. The 50-year-old is no stranger to climate negotiations: the Emirates' special envoy for climate, a position he had already held between 2010 and 2016, he was head of his country's delegation to COP26 in Glasgow, and to COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. In 2009, he was also appointed to the UN Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

But above all, it is the face of renewable energy development in the country. In 2006, he founded Masdar, a company specialising in the issue, at the initiative of Masdar City, a green urban area located in Abu Dhabi. A city that has also been home to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) for several years. In 2012, this huge project earned Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber the title of "Champion of the Earth" by the UN in the "entrepreneurial vision" category.

"The UAE understood early on the need to diversify its economy. They know that their oil resources are not infinite," explains Alexandre Kazerouni, a researcher at the École Normale Supérieure, a specialist in the Gulf and author of the book "Le Miroir des cheikhs" (PUF). Especially since, in addition to its exports, the country is itself a major consumer of fossil fuels. Its inhabitants, for example, find it very difficult to do without air conditioning."

Global warming is a particularly important topic for this desert country: according to a study published in 2021, some regions of the Gulf, where temperatures sometimes approach 50°C in summer, could become unlivable by the end of the century.

International influence

"Beyond the ecological issue, the challenge for the Emirati government is above all financial. It is also an opportunity to increase the country's international influence," continues Alexandre Kazerouni. "Moreover, this development of renewable energies did not start at any time: it was concomitant with the installation of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the annex of the French Sorbonne University and the international Formula 1 circuit. Culture, education, sport and the environment... These are all levers to bring the country closer to its Western partners despite political differences."

And the gamble seems to be on track to succeed. According to the daily Les Echos, Masdar, which has since established itself as the spearhead of the Emirates' strategy for its energy transition, is now operating in some forty countries for projects with a total value of more than 18 billion euros. The company alone currently produces 20 gigawatts of green electricity, with ambitions to increase this figure to 100 by 2030. At the end of December, it also announced a partnership with German gas giant Uniper to build a green hydrogen plant in the United Arab Emirates, produced from water and electricity from renewable energies.

In June 2022, the Wall Street Journal noted the paradox underway in the petro-monarchy, which remains the world's seventh largest oil producer. "The hottest investor in renewables is a major oil producer," it headlined.

"The future is coming, but it's not here yet"

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber thus symbolises all the contradiction at work in this country, which is triggering an energy transition but which remains highly dependent on fossil fuels. While a third of the kingdom's GDP still comes from hydrocarbons, the United Arab Emirates categorically refuses to reduce its production of fossil fuels and calls for a "progressive" phase-out. To "meet global demand," they plan to further increase their crude oil production capacity from 3.5 million barrels per day to 5 million in 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At the opening of an annual oil conference in 2021, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber had advocated "pragmatism", insisting on "investing 600 billion dollars every year in oil until 2030, to meet the expected global demand". "Yes, renewables are growing rapidly. But gas and oil remain the largest energies in the energy mix and will remain so for decades. The future is coming, but it's not here yet. You can't just pull the plug on today's system," he insisted.

In the run-up to the COP, however, Sultan al-Jaber has changed his rhetoric, gradually succeeding, if not convincing, at least improving his image among some of his detractors. "He's very direct, he listens," said Harjeet Singh, a COP veteran who speaks on behalf of the unavoidable Climate Action Network (a network of 1,900 organizations), who is well aware that he is complimenting an oil executive. A first turning point came in Bonn, Germany, in June, when Sultan Al-Jaber openly described the reduction of fossil fuels as "inevitable". These are rarely seen as leaders at COPs, and few expected them from a Gulf official.

These words were reiterated on Thursday 30 November at the opening of COP28. "We need to make sure that we include the role of fossil fuels. I know that there are strong opinions on the idea of including fossil fuel and renewable energy formulas in the negotiated text," he insisted.

It remains to be seen whether he will be able to manoeuvre to get an ambitious text adopted by the nearly 200 states participating in COP28. Dozens of countries have already announced that they will include an explicit call to reduce fossil fuels, something that no COP has ever succeeded.

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