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Pressure builds to eliminate fossil fuel use as oil executive takes over climate talks

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Pressure to phase out fossil fuels mounted Thursday on the oil company chief who took over fragile international climate negotiations that opened in Dubai on Thursday in what some say are contradictory dual roles.
COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber walks onstage at the opening session during the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Pressure to phase out fossil fuels mounted Thursday on the oil company chief who took over fragile international climate negotiations that opened in Dubai on Thursday in what some say are contradictory dual roles.

United Nations and climate talks leaders might have relieved some of the pressure when negotiators unanimously approved much-fought over plans to launch and fund a program to compensate poorer nations hit by floods, storms, drought and other climate extremes. Several nations, led by host United Arab Emirates, immediately pledged more than $420 million for the fund, which took 30 years to approve.

Leaders said they hope the quick win on a key financial issue would set a new tone for negotiations that had put the climate talks newly installed boss on the hot seat and not just because the planet keeps smashing heat records.

Days before the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP28) began, meeting preparation notes were published that linked efforts by the United Arab Emirates national oil company ADNOC to push fossil fuel sales at the same time its CEO and new COP president, Sultan al-Jaber, was meeting to curb climate change. The burning of coal, oil and gas are chief causes of global warming.

Al-Jaber vehemently denied the revelations from the BBC on Wednesday, But several climate negotiations experts say it will likely change the tenor and maybe even the outcome of the two weeks of intense negotiations, taking place about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from where five offshore oil fields flow. More than 100,000 people were registered for the negotiations, more than double the previous high for these new U.N. talks.

“I think the pressure on the COP president to deliver is pretty clear and has been clear for months,” German climate envoy Jennifer Morgan told The Associated Press. “That’s the focus here to deliver on really a course correction.”

Climate negotiations historian Joanna Depledge said, “whether true or not, the revelations are embarrassing, but I don’t think they put COP in jeopardy. To the contrary, the hope is that the pressure on UAE will tighten.”

“It’s understandable if the COP hosts, and other fossil fuel nations, were starting to feel the heat on this issue," said Mohamed Adow, of Power Shift Africa. "Fossil fuels are after all the elephant in the room and these countries can’t go on trying to pretend they are not a problem. This extra scrutiny is certainly welcome.”

Al-Jaber’s two positions were already a source of mistrust. The news coverage brings even more attention to the role of coal, oil and gas in climate change at climate talks and highlights efforts to eliminate use of fossil fuels, said World Resources Institute president Ani Dasgupta.

“On one hand, the disclosures erode trust in the COP president and that will make forging a deal harder,” said former U.S. State Department climate lawyer Nigel Purvis, CEO of Climate Advisers. “On the other hand, the UAE now has even more reason to push for a fossil fuel phase-down agreement to show the world that it is serious about becoming the first post-petroleum OPEC country.”

Morgan said Germany and Europe were steadfast in their support for a phase-out of fossil fuels, and on Wednesday U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said the United States continues to favor a phase-out.

Climate Analytics CEO Bill Hare said the UAE has pushed for a less stringent “phase-down” instead of a stricter “phase-out” of fossil fuels. He called the phase-down phrase “window dressing” for increased oil and gas drilling.

Recent reporting “absolutely reinforces everyone’s concerns about greenwashing,” Hare said Thursday. “And that means that the COP president needs to stand back from his oil interests and look at the interests of the planet as a whole.”

Hare, like Dasgupta, Purvis, Depledge and others, said in the end the reporting will mean al-Jaber and oil interests will have to shepherd a stronger agreement to get rid of fossil fuels.

United Nations climate chief Simon Stiell told negotiators that he was sick of the “baby steps” taken so far to fight climate change, challenging them to do far more and faster.

“If we do not signal the terminal decline of the fossil fuel era as we know it, we welcome our own terminal decline,” Stiell said. “And we choose to pay with people’s lives.”

Minutes after taking the gavel on the first day of climate negotiations, al-Jaber referred to the need for change in the way the world gets its energy.

“I know there are strong views on the idea of including language on fossil fuels,’’ al-Jaber said. “I ask you all to work together. Be flexible. Find common ground. Come forward with solutions and achieve consensus.”

Yet he also talked about the “bold choice” of including oil companies more in climate talks and the push for net zero industry emissions by 2050.

WRI’s Dasgupta said there’s extra pressure right now because globally multilateralism – when countries work together on issues – is under attack, especially because of recent wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the way the COVID-19 vaccine was distributed. Add to that record heat this year, he said.

“We’ve seen already at 1.2 degrees warming this year the catastrophic heatwaves, floods and other events that have happened around the world,” Climate Analytics Hare said. “We are facing epic wreckage here. If we can’t get this problem under control.”

Al-Jaber said he hopes negotiators over the next two weeks can change things.

“Let’s restore faith in multilateralism,” al-Jaber said. “Let’s deliver some good news to the world that really needs it today.”


Follow Seth Borenstein on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @borenbears


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Seth Borenstein, The Associated Press