Shock, fury as UAE picks oil firm CEO Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber as COP28 president

Sultan bin Ahmed al-Jaber.

Sultan bin Ahmed al-Jaber.

Photo credit: AFP

Kenyan climate activists and experts have criticised the United Arab Emirates' decision to pick Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Corporation (ADNOC) to serve as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) president.

This comes as the country warms up to host the world’s biggest climate change summit later this year. This will be the first time in the history of the global climate change summit that the CEO of the world’s biggest oil company will be serving as president.

Considering that the agreement struck in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, during COP27, did nothing to address how the use of fossil fuels is not only destroying mother nature but also frustrating a global and just transition to clean energy as well as global health systems, the climate fraternity in the country is just not amused.

At COP27, countries failed to agree to a phasedown of all fossil fuels, building on a call to phasedown coal at COP26 in Glasgow.

On Friday, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) in a statement expressed disappointment over Sultan Al Jaber’s appointment.

“We have learnt with consternation, and are profoundly appalled that a fossil fuel executive will lead 2023 climate change negotiations. Ominously, never again have we ever witnessed a quasi-government executive being appointed to lead such a crucial multilateral process, and this, infamous as it may sound, marks the lowest moment for the UNFCCC, which is exceedingly veering off from its mandate to an international Expo where Corporates with dubious environmental-climate integrity greenwash their fossil-fuel credentials,” the official statement reads in part. 

“Curiously in 2020, the country discovered over 80 trillion cubic feet of gas resources at Jebel Ali. Without understating the fact that a five-year business plan and capital expenditure of 550 billion dirhams ($150 billion) for the period 2023-2027 was also approved last year by the board to enable his company's growth strategy in order to bring forward oil production capacity expansion to 2027. We see this as a threat to the global commitment of divesting dirty energy for the sake of the limitation of global temperature to 1.5 degrees of global warming,” they added.

Mr Mwithika Mwenda, who is the executive director at PACJA, said the appointment is a textbook definition of impunity and conflict of interests.

Fossil fuels

“Addressing the climate crisis requires deep cuts in the production and use of fossil fuels, that course of action is squarely at variance with Al-Jaber’s business interests. It is hard to see Al-Jaber leading objective, science-backed negotiations in the interest of the most vulnerable,” Mr Mwenda said.

“We call on him to step aside and allow someone else with little vested interest to lead this important work on which the lives of all inhabitants of this planet, and more so millions of those at the frontline of climate change impacts depend,” he added.

Speaking to the Nation. Africa, a top Kenyan government official who sought anonymity due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter said he was shocked.

 “He (Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber) may be pressured to resign to show the international community that the COP presidency is serious with climate action,” the official said.

“Already, the UN climate summits attract too many fossil fuel lobbyists trying to slow progress and undermine action on climate change. But having an oil boss lead the talks as president would be a step too far,” Mohammed Adow who is the director of Nairobi-based energy and climate think-tank Power Shift Africa told Nation.Africa.

“We need people with a vision to end fossil fuels in charge of these talks, not someone whose job is to sell fossil fuels to the world,” he added.

In a past interview with Nation.Africa, the Climate Action Against Disinformation, a coalition of over 50 organisations around the globe that had been monitoring different misinformation threats confirmed reports that indeed over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP 27 last year against 500 lobbyists who showed up the previous year.

“For example, you will see false claims that increasing fossil fuel infrastructure in Africa is necessary because the green transition is a form of neo-colonialism,” Ms Jennie King then explained. 

Mr Eric Njuguna, a Nairobi-based youth climate justice organiser who works with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future (FFF), an international movement of school students who skip class on Fridays to participate in demonstrations to demand climate action from political leaders, prevent climate change and push for the fossil fuel industry to transition to clean energy said the appointment of the CEO of the world’s biggest oil company as president of COP28 is heart-breaking.

 “The UN climate conferences have had a history of having the presence and influence of the fossil fuel industry and this has served to undermine the talks as there have been multiple evidence of the big oil lobby groups,” Mr Njuguna said.

Climate crisis

He says COP28 will be crucial for people bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

“COP 28 also has to make tangible steps on the move to a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy,” he said.

He said the COP28 presidency should drop affiliations with the fossil fuel industry. He said the United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) needs to adopt a conflict of interest policy.

In an interview with Nation, Alex Rafalowicz who is the executive director at the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Organisation said that the nomination of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber is nothing but an act of provocation.

“This time, oil, gas and coal interests will not only be present to influence the UN climate talks, but they will also be in the driver’s seat of the negotiations.

Even before the COP starts, this raises serious questions about the global commitment to shift off coal, oil, and gas,” he said.

“This appointment raises the question of whether the UNFCCC is up to the challenge to address the climate emergency by tackling its root cause: oil, gas and coal production. Sultan Al Jaber must resign from the oil company if he wants to sit in the COP seat.”

Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate said:  

"COP28 needs to see real money put into the loss and damage fund agreed in Egypt. But alongside this, COP28 must speed up the global phase-out of fossil fuels - we cannot have another COP where fossil fuel interests are allowed to sacrifice our futures to eke out another few years of profit,” Ms Nakate said.

 “The voices of civil society and young activists are crucial in holding governments to account — they must be heard in Dubai without intimidation," she added.

Step down

Tasneem Essop, a South African who is the executive director at Climate Action Network International said:

“With the COP28 host, the UAE, announcing the appointment of His Excellency Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber as President of COP28, it is imperative for the world to be reassured that he will step down from his role as the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Corporation. He cannot preside over a process that is tasked to address the climate crisis with such a conflict of interest, heading an industry that is responsible for the crisis itself.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) it's the seventh-largest petroleum and other liquids producer in the world with export revenues topping $70 billion with vast oil and gas reserves; 98 billion barrels of oil and 215 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Climate experts are also concerned about his recent public sentiments as he is on record arguing for a rise in annual fossil fuel investments of US $600bn until 2030.

"We must make progress with pragmatism," he told delegates at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADIPEC) during the 2021 ADIPEC summit.

In October last year at an Oil Industry event in London, he said: “Let’s advocate for an inclusive approach that takes advantage of the expertise of the people in the oil and gas industry.”

Mr Al Jaber is, however, also on record warning of the dangers of climate change and outlining the UAE's plans to invest in clean energy.