COP28 in Dubai: a climate conference in a petro-monarchy, how is it possible?

The choice of the United Arab Emirates, the seventh largest producer of crude oil, to host a conference dedicated to the planet's climate, which is warming in large part because of this resource, seems paradoxical. The choice of the head of the national oil company to preside over the COP is considered foolish by many. How did we get here? Are surprises allowed in three weeks' time in Dubai?

Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, President-designate of COP28, delivers his speech during Adipec, a conference that brings together stakeholders in the hydrocarbon sector, on October 2, 2023. AP - Kamran Jebreili

By: Géraud Bosman-Delzons Follow


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From 30 November to 12 December, the seaside city on the Persian Gulf is hosting the most important "climate" event since Paris in 2015. The first task of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) will be to take stock of the global assessment of the efforts pledged by each of the 195 states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the progress report published in September, which should serve as a basis for discussions, even if progress has been made over the past decade, there is still no plan to stay below the 1.5 to 2°C maximum warming imposed by the Paris Agreement. A British study published on 30 October in the journal Nature Climate Change even revises the date by which this critical threshold would be reached at the current rate to early 2029, from 2032. We would have to reduce our emissions by almost 50% compared to 2019 to stay the course.

This one warning – and there are many others, such as the exceedance of planetary boundaries or the successive temperature records – makes the Dubai staging point all the more crucial. However, the choice of this emirate and its president Sultan Al-Jaber as hosts has continued to fuel scepticism, even defeatism, about the necessary and expected decisions since January.

A climate summit in Dubai, why is it wrong?

First of all, there is the postcard, that of the principality of excess: the tallest skyscraper in the world, the largest indoor ski slope in the world, the highest infinity pool in the world, the deepest pool too, three palm island groves built on concrete poured on coral reefs in order to accommodate tens of thousands of people and five-star hotel complexes, that you fly over in a helicopter... And the pharaonic projects continue.

A melting pot of luxury and consumption, a powerful tourist and entrepreneurial magnet, a tax haven in the eyes of the EU and a long-time gilded haven for European mafiosi, Dubai symbolises the anti-thesis of sobriety, a solution written in black and white in the IPCC report published in April 2022 to achieve the targeted reduction in emissions.

Skydiving over Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, in 2018. This palm island, one of the symbols of the success of this city built between the sea and the desert, can accommodate nearly 80,000 people. Getty Images - Skydive Dubai

Because this modern "Eden", a fishing village only a few decades ago, has emerged from poverty and desert thanks to the production of black gold. The Emirates is the seventh-largest oil producing country with around 3.5 million barrels per day in 2023. And even though this federation of seven emirates says it is preparing for the post-oil era, for now, it plans to increase its production by 25% and reach five million barrels per day by 2027. In fact, the British newspaper The Guardian revealed, the third most ambitious hydrocarbon exploitation plan in the world. According to the International Energy Agency, 90% of this same plan would have to remain underground to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and no other fossil fuel extraction projects should be undertaken in order to meet the 1.5°C warming threshold. As a result of this oil resource – which benefits users around the world – the United Arab Emirates is the fourth most polluting state in the world in terms of emissions per capita, with 21.8 tonnes of CO2 per capita per year. It is ahead of its neighbours Qatar (35.6 tonnes), Bahrain and Kuwait – compared to around 7 tonnes in the United States, 2.6 tonnes on average in the EU and 3.<> tonnes worldwide.

A central figure at the COP, the 50-year-old Emirati Ahmed al-Jaber, a member of the ruling family, has been able to read the miles of literature written about him over the past eleven months. It must be said that the man superimposes on his keffiyeh an impressive number of hats that do not all look in the same direction: Minister of Industry and Technology, he chairs the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the national oil company (12th largest producer in the world), but also one of the largest renewable energy companies, Masdar, and finally the COP in less than three weeks. He makes no secret of his vision for energy policy: "The oil and gas industry will have to invest $600 billion every year until 2030 just to meet demand," he said in November 2021, adding: "Renewables are the fastest-growing sector of the energy package, but oil and gas are the most important and will remain so for decades to come. The future is clean but it's not here yet. We need to move forward pragmatically. If, for the past eleven months, he has put water in his arak on the form, his discourse has not changed one iota on the substance.

His appointment was seen as a provocation by civil society and environmental associations, which immediately denounced a "scandalous conflict of interest" and demanded his resignation from Adnoc. This "is equivalent to appointing the CEO of a tobacco group to oversee a conference on cancers," said Zeina Khalil Hajj, head of the NGO; "It goes beyond putting the fox in charge of the coop," Teresa Anderson told ActionAid. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said the appointment was proof that the fossil fuel industry had taken over the UN's climate agenda. A few days before the opening of the conference, a joint investigation confirmed the concerns of conflicts of interest raised since his appointment in January.

Throughout the year, there have been calls for a boycott of the COP, as recently as 30 September. "This will open the floodgates of greenwashing and oil and gas contracts. COP28 cannot be turned into a trade show for the fossil fuel industry," said Zeina Khalil Hajj. In May, 130 U.S. and European lawmakers called for his resignation in an open letter to Joe Biden, Ursula von der Leyen, Antonio Guterres and Simon Stiell, head of the UNFCCC. The following month, The Guardianclaimed that the oil company's servers had been "involved in both sending and receiving emails from the COP28 office"...

The last COPs have seen the influence of the oil lobbies increase considerably, as shown by Global Witness, which investigates their presence every year and calls for a ban on hydrocarbon companies at COPs. Their number increased by 25% between the COP in Glasgow in 2021 and that of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2022. A notable change this year: for the sake of "transparency" desired by the UN, the list of participants will be made public, and they will be identified on their badges. However, this should not contain their influx.

On its website, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, the "mother" of COPs) recalls that it "does not have a conflict of interest policy, but it does have a code of conduct". This code specifies that "the President must not simultaneously exercise the rights of a Party representative [Editor's note: the official actor of the COP]". Rules that, by the UNFCCC's own admission, "have not yet been adopted by the COPs, but at each of them, governments have decided to apply them".

The human rights situation is also a source of criticism in a regime that has a "zero tolerance" policy for dissenting voices, Human Rights Watch warned today. According to Amnesty International, "as COP9 approaches, the authorities have failed to release any of the 28 members of UAE civil society unjustly imprisoned in 60, while 2013 of them have completed their sentences." To what extent will the freedom of expression of environmental activists who demand an end to fossils be ensured?

Grievances against this COP continue to pile up. On 3 July, the Adnoc company headed by Ahmed al-Jaber announced the signing of a contract for the construction of a 3200,1 km gas pipeline at a cost of $34.7 billion. And on November 28, an AFP investigation revealed how the powerful consulting firm MacKinsey & Company "provided the Emirati organizers of the 50th United Nations climate conference with scenarios on the future of the global energy sector that are at odds with the climate goals that the firm publicly displays." The "Energy Transition Narrative", written by the firm and seen by AFP, predicts a reduction in oil consumption of only 2050% by 2700, and foresees $28.<> trillion in annual investment in oil and gas by then. MacKinsey is "openly and unabashedly calling for lowering ambitions on the phase-out of oil within the COP<> presidency itself," whose mission is exactly the opposite, said a source who attended confidential meetings with the summit's hosts.

Despite everything, Al-Jaber is holding on. By greening and polishing his discourse ad nauseam ("climate change is the common enemy, we must unite to confront it"), he has been able to seduce many leaders, especially Western ones, during his 2023 tour. For a fortnight, the deeds, gestures and words of the man who intends to launch his "Global Alliance for Decarbonisation" in Dubai – a group of hydrocarbon companies – will be scrutinised and commented on. However, François Gemenne, co-author at the IPCC and climate geopolitical scientist, puts the host country's weight in the negotiations into perspective: "It sets the agenda for the discussions. But it's a bit like a referee in a football match: he can sometimes influence the result but he's not the one who scores the goals. The role of the president should not be overestimated.


How was this choice made possible?

The choice of a host city must meet a number of criteria, first and foremost logistical. In particular, it is necessary to be able to accommodate tens of thousands of participants – around 80,000 people are registered at the Dubai COP, twice as many as the previous two – and hundreds of very high personalities, heads of state, ministers, religious leaders and heads of multinationals.

The COPs are organized in turn in the five regional blocs: Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe and finally Western Europe and other States (Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the United States). It is within them that the candidacy of a city is decided, which will then be validated by the Parties to the Convention. "The procedure shall not be put to a vote. Like the vast majority of decisions taken under the UNFCCC, this was decided by consensus," the UNFCCC secretariat's press service said. For COP28, the decision was endorsed at COP26 in Glasgow (decision 21/CP.26) in November 2021.

نبارك لدولة الإمارات فوزها باستضافة أهم مؤتمر عالمي للمناخ COP28 في عام 2023 .. اختيار مستحق لدولتنا .. وسنضع كل إمكانياتنا لإنجاح المؤتمر .. وستبقى دولة الإمارات ملتزمة تجاه العمل المناخي العالمي لحماية كوكب الأرض.

— HH Sheikh Mohammed (@HHShkMohd) November 11, 2021

Theoretically, the 2024 COP should be held in an Eastern European country. Bulgaria is in the ranks. But that group includes Russia, which opposes the meeting taking place in the European Union, which has sanctioned it for its war in Ukraine. According to the Financial Times, Dubai has offered to renew for another year. The emirate categorically denied this on 27 October: "The Emirates has not been approached and has no intention of hosting COP29," said Majid al-Suwaidi, the director general of the December summit. But the subject is not over and could monopolize some of the media attention in Dubai, as well as the Ukrainian and Israeli-Palestinian issues. It should be noted that Armenia and Azerbaijan have also offered their services, but they are likely to veto each other. According to the rules, if no city emerges, the headquarters of the Framework Convention, located in Bonn (Germany), will take over. But Germany has already warned that it "doesn't want" to hold it. It takes a year to set up such an event.


In a process of geographical rotation, it is normal that from time to time, a COP is organized in a country in the Middle East. And the Emirates are the choice of the lesser evil in the region," says François Gemenne. This climate COP is not the first to be hosted by an oil-producing country. Qatar hosted it in 2012 and the Minister of Energy chaired it. But ten years ago, the political, social and media pressure was much less. As explained in the thick handbook prepared by the secretariat of the Framework Convention ("with the financial support of Qatar") for candidate states for the organisation of a COP, "it is not easy to be green. Conferences generate considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Host countries will need to take proactive steps to achieve carbon neutrality. Civil society and the media will have tough questions about the sustainability aspects of everything related to the organisation of the conference, from carbon offsetting to waste management. Host countries will need to have well-prepared responses.


In a sign that it feels expected at the turn of the century, the UAE presidency has drawn up a long list of "delicate and sensitive" subjects revealed by The Guardian at the beginning of August: its energy policy, the sultan and his functions, the carbon footprint of the inhabitants, but also human rights, money laundering and his role in the war in Yemen (400,000 dead). It also includes the related language elements to be addressed to the media.

What are the chances of progress?


The indignation we have in Europe over the holding of this COP28 in Dubai seems to me to be a very European point of view. One of the biggest fiascos in the history of COPs was COP15 in 2009, which was held in Denmark, a model country in the fight against climate change. The fact of holding a COP in a country that depends on hydrocarbons does not guarantee its failure," says François Gemenne.


The fact that the COP is being held in the United Arab Emirates is obviously paradoxical Michel Taube, a journalist and author of an investigative book on The Hidden Face of the United Arab Emirates, told RFI. But, he adds, "in the end, the fight against global warming is above all the concern of polluters: it is their responsibility to commit to a change in the economic model, in the energy transition." "If one of the first objectives of the COP is to discuss the exit from fossil fuels, we will have to do so with countries whose economies are largely dependent on these energies," adds François Gemenne, who also sees the "practical" aspect of location, which is very well connected from an aerial point of view, and envisages a "COP that is undoubtedly much more inclusive with delegations from the countries of the South much better represented than in Glasgow".

As for the future president of the COP, after months of "sultan-bashing", a different sound of the bell is being heard. "He's very direct, he's a good listener," admitted Harjeet Singh, a leading voice of civil society at Climate Action Network International (which coordinates 1,900 organizations). The two men met, and their teams talk to each other every month.

On the diplomatic front, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber could embody the mediator between a North and a South at loggerheads on many points, first and foremost that of financing (adaptation to the devastating effects and repair of the damage). It will probably do so with the trump card that reconciles everyone: renewable energy. "In this tense geopolitical context, it is probably rather a chance to have the COP in a somewhat neutral country, which acts as a bridge between the Arab and Southern countries and the West," says François Gemenne. It remains to be seen how the Emirates will be able to evolve in the tutelary shadow of its Saudi neighbour, particularly on the question of an exit from fossil fuels to be programmed.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Al-Jaber can and does boast strong technical skills, having spent his entire career in the energy sector. He has led the UAE delegation to the last three COPs. "People who accuse me of conflicts of interest don't know my background," he said in a rare interview with AFP. Despite his seemingly irreconcilable positions, he skilfully conveys the image of a leader who is lucid about the finiteness of resources. He recently admitted an "inevitable" and "essential" reduction in fossil fuels and not just their emissions. "It's a way of saying, 'I'm on the side of ambition.' There is a desire to advertise, but we are entitled to ask the question: is this really what they really want to achieve? ", explains Lola Vallejo, an expert on climate issues at the IDDRI think tank. And above all: at what time horizon. "It's been twenty years since we embraced the energy transition," he likes to say. In July 2021, the federation was the first in the Middle East/North Africa region to announce its carbon neutrality by 2050. In 2006, the Janus of Emirati energy policy created Masdar, an investment fund specialising in renewables that has flourished in 40 countries, leading the way on the African continent, and which has made it possible to outcompete 20 million tonnes of CO2.

Indeed, to reverse its image as an oil merchant, the Emirates are promoting its very ambitious strategy of developing renewable energies. "What I'm trying to say is that you can't disconnect the planet from the current energy system until you've built the new one. It's a transition: transitions don't happen overnight, they take time. In his roadmap, the Emirati calls for tripling renewable energy, doubling hydrogen production and doubling investment in energy efficiency. But it also promotes contested "solutions" such as seawater desalination or carbon capture and storage (CCS). To do this, he invokes one of the latest IPCC reports, omitting to specify that the authors of the same report specified that this process should play only a small role in capturing only "residual emissions", those that are incompressible even in a decarbonized world. In Dubai, the followers of all-out techno-solutionism should therefore have the best showcase hoped for for a fortnight.


You have to go to Dubai without being fooled by the results that will come out of it Michel Taube, director of the online media outlet Opinion internationale, sums it up. "The key players in these fossil fuels are not going to decide tomorrow morning to disengage from them and go bankrupt without compensation and without the time to reorganize." The hypothesis of an agreement on an unconditional exit from fossil fuels is all the more chimerical since even the European Union, a major player in the negotiations, has not integrated this objective into its negotiating mandate – to the chagrin of France and 80 countries that will argue in this direction. The 27 will fight for a "global phase-out of fossil fuels" but only those called unabated, "without mitigation devices", i.e. only those that are not backed by a carbon capture system. In the eyes of detractors and NGOs, it is an open door to the massive use of this decried technique and a way to perpetuate the use of fossils. The Emirati presidency, as we have seen, has chosen its side.

Read alsoCarbon Capture and Storage: Good or Bad Solution?

However, the columnist continues, "we must not reject this COP28 out of hand. We can hope, given the considerable resources available to this country and its allies, that they will invest massively in one of the key issues of this COP, which is that of financing efforts to reduce global warming. If serious progress is made on this issue, it will probably help to make the pill go through.

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