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Canadian politicians and civil society groups are decrying the United Arab Emirates’ decision to have an oil company CEO lead this year’s international climate talks.
The UAE is hosting the annual United Nations climate conference and recently announced Sultan Al Jaber, industry minister and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., would be president at this important forum for climate negotiations.
Canadian climate watchers were appalled that an oil company magnate from a country deeply invested in fossil fuel production was chosen to play host to a meeting where countries gather to chart a path to reduce planet-warming pollution for the good of the world.
As CEO, Al Jaber has a responsibility to maximize profit from oil and gas extraction for his state-owned company, Catherine Abreu, founder of the climate advocacy group Destination Zero, told Canada’s National Observer.
“That interest is directly in conflict with the interests a COP president should have, which is landing the most ambitious possible outcome from those climate talks,” said Abreu. She said the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change doesn’t have any conflict-of-interest policies that would address this, and it's the first time a serving oil executive has assumed the top role at a UN climate summit.
Al Jaber should step aside as CEO of the national oil company and “devote himself 100 per cent” to the “critical role” of COP president, which requires a “tremendous amount of advance work,” said Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May, echoing the calls of some civil society groups.
The only mitigating factor is the fact Al Jabar wears two hats when it comes to energy. Alongside his CEO duties, he chairs the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, also known as Masdar, a renewable energy firm. The company website says it advances innovation in clean technologies and is adopting a “smart first-mover approach in green hydrogen.”
May said that went some small way to temper her “horror at the whole situation,” said May.
“It's unfortunate that we're meeting in the United Arab Emirates, just to be blunt,” May told Canada’s National Observer, noting that the United Nations system has a rotation for each region of the world. “It's certainly not ideal when a conference is in a country that's deeply embedded in promoting fossil fuels.”
Canadian politicians and civil society groups are decrying the United Arab Emirates’ decision to have a national oil company CEO lead this year’s international climate talks. #COP28 #ClimateChange
The recent United Nations climate conference in Egypt faced criticism for the more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance. The host country has a large bearing on the outcome of the negotiations, said May.
Every five years, the UN rotation brings the climate conference to Poland, which May said makes for “terrible COPs because Poland is a coal industry country and doesn't support the success of phasing out coal and phasing out fossil fuels.”
She predicts a similar issue with COP28 taking place in the UAE, which is among the top 10 oil producers in the world and as of 2019, recorded the fourth-highest emissions per capita behind Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. However, “the pressure on the country and the president right now and the reaction to his appointment could push them in a good direction,” May mused.
In 2021, the UAE pumped out 3.8 million barrels of oil per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The oil and gas industry accounted for 30 per cent of the UAE’s GDP in 2020 and is home to vast oil and gas reserves.
“Can we really believe that the next COP presidency will promote progress in the fight against climate change?” Bloc Québécois environment critic Monique Pauzé told Canada’s National Observer in an emailed statement. “Petro-lobbies are gaining far too much ground at the moment, with great harm to the entire planet.”
“… To have a representative of this industry preside over (COP28), that's the last straw!” Pauzé’s statement reads. Pauzé believes that multi-lateral diplomatic efforts by the federal government to overturn this nomination are “a must,” yet she doubts Canada will deliver on this.
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault “looks forward” to meeting with the presidency later this year “to begin advancing an ambitious agenda,” reads a statement from an Environment Canada spokesperson. “We are more committed than ever to support the global transition to cleaner, renewable forms of energy, by transitioning away from our dependency on fossil fuels."
The UAE aims to produce almost half its energy from renewables by 2050 and as of October 2022, has six hydrogen energy projects under development. Its 2050 energy strategy says 38 per cent of the country’s energy will come from gas, six per cent from nuclear, and 12 per cent from coal coupled with carbon capture technology.
NDP environment critic Laurel Collins said she’s “disappointed” the federal government isn't speaking out and objecting to Al Jaber’s nomination, but is not surprised.
“This is, unfortunately, something that we see here in Canada and around the world, where governments are listening to oil executives and big oil corporations over the interests of their own citizens,” Collins told Canada's National Observer in a phone interview.
At COP27, over 80 countries called for the inclusion of a commitment to phase out fossil fuels in the final agreement. This year, Abreu expects every single one of those countries — including Canada, which supported the call at the 11th hour — to talk to their UAE counterparts about how they plan to ensure the climate talks aren’t subject to the same level of influence from fossil fuel interests that we saw last year, or in previous years.
“If we continue to have the UNFCCC being dominated by interests that would rather maintain the status quo, then the ability of countries to have that conversation will continue to be left out,” said Abreu.
There are also questions that countries and civil society groups can use to put UAE to the test in the run-up to COP28, she said.
“Will we advance on the conversation about fossil fuel phaseout that started at COP27? Will the UAE take action to limit the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists … or will we see that number grow even from last year?” asked Abreu.
Something concrete the UAE could do, as an act of goodwill, is shift some of the billions it has made in windfall profits from oil and gas revenue into climate finance, she said, pointing to Barbados, which in November called for oil and gas companies to put one per cent of their profits into a fund to help pay for damage caused by climate change.
This year’s climate talks will be particularly important because countries will take stock of whether the world is on track to meet its climate goals, said May.
Conservative environment critic Gérard Deltell declined to comment.
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer