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The dilemmas around holding COP28 in the UAE

December 27, 2022
topics: Climate action
by: Marc Español
located in: United Arab Emirates
tags: climate change, COP27, COP28, fossil fuel

The wealthy Gulf nation, with its poor environmental record, has ramped up its lobbying activity as it prepares to host the next UN climate summit - a move that fits into its long-term strategy of influencing the global energy transition.

As the UN climate summit COP27 kicked off on 6 November, over 30,000 people from all over the world began descending on the famous Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, which was chosen to host the most important climate change conference of the year.

Among them were political leaders, members of civil society, journalists and scientists. But they were not the only ones. Among those who travelled to the south of the Sinai Peninsula to attend the talks and negotiations were also at least 636 fossil fuel lobbyists, affiliated with some of the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants.

The figure, gathered by a joint investigation conducted by Corporate Accountability, the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Global Witness (GW), represented an increase of no less than 25 percent over COP26, which was held in Glasgow the previous year.

Considering the total number of attendees, this may not seem like a large number. But the dilemma becomes more apparent when viewed in perspective: more fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27 than any single national delegation, and there were more of them than representatives of the ten countries most impacted by climate change.

"It is absolutely unacceptable that such a large number of fossil fuel lobbyists was allowed to attend," Alexander Kirk, a campaigner at Global Witness, told FairPlanet. "By allowing these lobbyists to attend, the organisers of COP27 blindly allowed those with a stake in the destructive practices causing the climate crisis to pollute the talks."

The problem, however, did not end there, but echoed an even bigger one. According to another analysis by the CEO and Corporate Accountability, 18 of the 20 companies that sponsored the climate talks directly support or partner with the fossil fuel industry. 

And to manage its communications while it held the presidency of the climate conference, Egypt hired a US public relations firm, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, that works for large oil companies and has been accused of greenwashing, as revealed by openDemocracy.

All these movements occurred while activists, members of civil society and indigenous communities from Global South countries, which are the most affected by climate change despite not having contributed to it, were facing serious problems to attend the summit due to difficulties in obtaining visas, high costs and the repressive climate in Egypt.

"More fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27 than any single national delegation."

Among the countries that made the greatest efforts to attend the summit one in particular stood out: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world’s biggest oil exporters.

In total, the UAE registered just over 1,000 delegates, far more than the 176 it sent to Glasgow. Of the delegates, 70 were fossil fuel lobbyists - more than from any other sector.

The small Gulf petrostate has also substantially increased its climate lobbying and public relations activities over the past year, according to The Guardian. And for many activists, experts and observers, all this was merely a harbinger of more to come, given that the UAE will be  the host of the next UN climate change summit, COP28, in December 2023.

"The fact that the largest fossil fuels delegation from COP27 was linked to the UAE is particularly concerning," Kirk said. He added, "This raises serious doubts about the commitment of the UAE to addressing climate change, and whether they will prioritise the global community’s needs over the interests of big oil and gas."

The Gulf’s long clout

While it is difficult to determine the real impact that lobbying and public relations efforts had on the climate negotiations, one thing is clear: COP27 will be remembered as the summit that laid the groundwork for the creation of a fund for loss and damage caused by climate change, which has been a long-standing demand of the climate justice movement.

But the summit will also be remembered for the failure to achieve a substantial commitment to prevent global temperatures from rising above the critical threshold of 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

The contradiction was best expressed by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the conclusion of the summit: "A fund for loss and damage is essential, but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map or turns an entire African country to desert. The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition."

Among the countries that reportedly fought hardest against realising the climate ambition referred to by Guterres are some Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which are extremely reluctant to phase down fossil fuels.

Both nations are also strategic allies of the host country, Egypt, which has been criticised for its dubious way of managing the agenda, as well as for not having reflected in  the need to phase down fossil fuels the final text of the summit - a need emphasised by numerous countries.

At COP27, Saudi Arabia also made an extensive display to present itself to the world as a leader in green energy transition. Its campaign mainly revolved around two major initiatives, which the kingdom showcased with great fanfare: the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI), launched in 2021 to reduce emissions and plant 10 billion trees in the country, and the Middle East Green Initiative (MEGI), which is regional in scope.

But a number of researchers, experts and activists agree that many of Riyadh’s promises are unfeasible, that its pledges are vague considering it is the world’s leading oil exporter and that its targets and policies are highly insufficient.

"Pledges for net-zero commitments and planting trees are great pledges, but unless we are going to start working on how systematically we will start addressing our phase out commitment to fossil fuel, these are not really addressing the core of the problem," Zeina Khalil Hajj, a leading global campaigner and organiser at 350.org, told FairPlanet.

UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed put words to these moves and dubious balances at a COP27 session: "The UAE is a responsible energy supplier, and we will continue to play that role as we pursue a transition to alternate resources and technologies," he stated.

The main problem, some note, is that this position goes far beyond a simple COP or two. And it is indicative of how some oil-rich countries and companies are not only seeking to prolong their profits for as long as possible, but are also directing increasing attention toward greening their oil money and trying to exert control over the energy transition.

In the case of the UAE, this bet is best embodied by Sultan Al Jaber, the czar of the Emirati energy sector. Al Jaber is the Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), chairman of the country’s renewable energy company Masdar and the special envoy for climate change.

Hosting COP28 in the UAE dovetails perfectly with this strategy.

"I think you are going to see something similar to what we see with Qatar and the World Cup, which is specifically the usual critics coming out to the UAE and its carbon footprint," Natalie Koch, a professor at Heidelberg University who studied in-depth the efforts of the UAE to green their oil money, told FairPlane. "But because they have been making all these other investments in these kinds of strategic green initiatives, they might feel better prepared to push back."

Koch stressed that other sovereign wealth funds, oil companies and states, many of them in the West, are also involved in this race, even if they sometimes receive less attention.

Western hypocrisy

Western countries, and especially major powers such as the US and the EU, have long been accused of climate hypocrisy for placing the blame for the lack of progress in reducing emissions on countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, as happened at COP27, despite their vast subsidies and investments in the sector and high levels of consumption.

The criticism is particularly sharp when the concerns and reservations of the West, which has very high levels of per capita carbon emissions, are directed at countries of the Global South, where many live in energy poverty.

An average citizen of the US, for example, emits more CO2 in one day than the average person in the Democratic Republic of Congo does in a year. And in one week, the former will have exceeded the annual emissions of over 20 low-income countries, according to a study by the Center for Global Development.

Some 40 Africa-focused environmental organisations also published a report on the side-lines of COP27 criticising the fact that 21 of the 23 top investors in the continent’s oil and gas projects are based in the West (14 in the US, 6 in Europe and 1 in Canada). These include the investment giant BlackRock, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, French oil giant Total Energies and Italian oil giant Eni.

"Europe’s fossil fuel addiction is a major driver behind new [liquified natural gas, LNG] projects in Africa," Anabela Lemos, director of Justiça Ambiental, one of the groups that contributed to the report, was quoted as saying. "The rush for Africa’s oil and gas has nothing to do with increasing energy access for Africans."

These double standards have also been exposed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Europe has not hesitated to prioritise energy security over environmental considerations in its bid to cut its dependence on Russian gas. 

This move has led them to search for new suppliers at full speed, which has greatly benefited Gulf states such as Qatar and harmed many Global South nations that now have to deal with soaring energy prices or resort to far more polluting alternatives.

Responses

Among the climate justice actions that received significant media and public attention in recent months have been those aimed at exposing the widespread addiction to fossil fuels by targeting paintings and other famous pieces of art, as well as efforts to partially halt regular activity at some jet terminals.

And while they received less attention, the celebration in the wake of COP27 in Egypt and the plans for COP28 in the UAE have also raised momentum and generated calls to ensure the integrity of these high-profile UN talks.

Here, most efforts are being directed at pressing the body in charge of organising these summits, the UNFCCC, to develop a clear conflict of interest policy around the talks, block access for entities with interests in the fossil fuels industry, increase transparency and develop accountability mechanisms.

"We must not allow the interests of big oil to undermine the urgent work that must be done to address climate change and must hold those responsible accountable for their actions," Kirk, the campaigner from Global Witness, said.

This campaign also calls on organisers to ensure an effective and open participation of civil society and the climate justice movement in the talks, particularly of those hailing from the frontline of the climate crisis - something that Egypt prohibited and which is also at risk in the UAE.

"The point on who will be leading the decision-making [process], whether the fossil fuel industry lobbyists will have a say, and whether we will be able to voice our concern and opinion freely are two issues that have us really concerned as we head toward COP28," Hajj from 350.org concluded.

"There will be a lot of challenges for us as civil society."

Image by Sangga Rima Roman Selia.

Article written by:
ciff.jpg.256x256_q100_crop-smart
Marc Español
Author
United Arab Emirates
More fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27 than any single national delegation.
Among the countries that mobilised hardest to attend the summit, one in particular stood out: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world’s biggest oil exporters.
“We must not allow the interests of big oil to undermine the urgent work that must be done to address climate change and must hold those responsible accountable for their actions.”
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