COP28: Fake it while you make it

Road to COP28

COP28: Fake it while you make it

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The wheelin’ dealin’ Sultan of COP28

Welcome to the most successful display of carbon capture and sequestration ever. No, we’re not talking about those non-stop Exxon commercials touting the techno-wonders of preventing carbon from oil burning escaping into the atmosphere. We are talking about the capture of the world’s most important climate conference, COP28, by petrostate and COP host, the United Arab Emirates, who are also acting on behalf of their Middle East neighbors Saudi Arabia, Qatar, as well the world’s largest oil and gas companies. 

More than 70,000 delegates and participants to the UN’s annual climate conference are filling Dubai’s air-conditioned desert pleasure domes to kick off the greatest circus since Barnum & Bailey. The ringmaster is Sultan Al Jaber, the Janus of climate change, who, depending on whom he is speaking to, is either aggressively pitching fossil fuel expansion or begging people to believe he is a climate “action leader.” 

He can do this because he is not only president of COP28 but also CEO of ADNOC, the UAE’s state-owned oil company. But more importantly, ADNOC is one of the few oil companies still making substantial investments to increase oil production despite intense international pressure to reduce output due to climate change.

Getting out of bed to face COP

The capture of the UN climate process by “Big Oil” has angered and depressed activists, policymakers, and UN civil servants, who have spent decades trying to coordinate a global response to the accelerating climate crisis. “I’ve been at every COP since the start,” says Jennifer Morgan, former Greenpeace International co-CEO and now Germany’s climate envoy, “I have to be an optimist, or I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning,” she said. To read more about COP, check out our story from Mariah Costa, our colleague from Green Central Banking

The ringmaster is Sultan Al Jaber, the Janus of climate change, who, depending on whom he is speaking to, is either aggressively pitching fossil fuel expansion or begging people to believe he is a climate “action leader.” 

Just how COP has devolved from a global effort to fight global warming to being about championing the “fossil fuel forever” strategies of oil and gas executives, and what impact that will have on climate change policy, will play out in Dubai over the next two weeks. 

It’s showtime!

For the past year, Dr. Sultan, as he is known, has been meticulously trained by his hybrid team of oil and PR executives to use the full powers of the COP presidency to ensure maximum control by the fossil fuel industry’s global efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. 

While abusing the office of COP had long been suspected, a smoking gun surfaced: The sultan’s own talking points, leaked by a whistleblower somewhere (stay safe!) to the Centre for Climate Reporting instructing Jabar on how the UAE planned to use its role as the host of UN climate talks to strike oil and gas deals. 

No to stopping oil production

At the top of the sultan’s agenda is to blunt any talk of “phasing out” fossil fuel. Efforts to push for an end of oil, gas, and coal by 2050 were quashed last year in the waning moments of COP27 under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and others. 

Jaber has been instructed to ensure this does not happen again in Dubai. Phasing out fossil fuels to deliver absolute zero carbon emissions by 2050 is the ultimate climate solution — and has been at the heart of the COP agenda since its first meeting in 1995. Should the world ever agree on a fossil fuel phase-out, it would have catastrophic consequences for Jaber and the $6.66 trillion oil, gas and coal industry. 

For almost a year, this meticulously media-trained talking head has been delivering to dozens of state ministers a maliciously deceptive message that he and the oil industry, far from being climate villains, are, in fact, climate heroes rallying the world to end “unabated fossil fuels.” 

You say abatement …

At first, that sounds like a game-changing industry turnaround. And it would have been an enormous step forward had it not been for one giant, weasel word: ‘abatement.’ 

The sultan’s argument is simple. As long as carbon emissions from oil and gas are eliminated, or ‘abated,’ the industry can sell fossil fuels forever. 

Of course, only a true circus ringmaster would try to convince you that you can burn oil and gas with zero carbon emissions. And so in the great circus sideshow tradition of sleeping on a bed of nails and fire eating, Jaber is busking equally fabulist distortions. 

It’s not that these ideas will never work. It is just that they have not, nor will they have any impact on cutting carbon emissions for a long, long time. 

Like circus contortionists, these industry ‘solutions’ are designed to distort reality and undermine real climate solutions like solar power. Instead, Jaber and the industry offer climate alternatives that have never been proven to work at scale, will take too long to develop, or are distractions. Top of the list are carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the myriad global carbon trading schemes, and hydrogen as an alternative fuel. It’s not that these ideas will never work. It is just that they have not, nor will they have any impact on cutting carbon emissions for a long, long time. 

The $15 trillion solution

Let’s take that industry favorite, carbon capture. Reaching the kind of scale necessary to have a real carbon reduction impact would require building a massive alternative pipe distribution system to move the captured CO2 almost as big as the present pipeline footprint that has taken 150 years to make. It would also cost the industry about 12 trillion dollars. 

Even for the oil industry, that is an unacceptable capex cost. After all, even in a perfect year, like last year, the world’s largest oil companies “only” made $200 billion in profits — most of that profit is returned to its shareholders. 

The dirty secret in the fossil fuel industry is that everyone knows carbon capture, or trading, or fanciful talk of a green hydrogen revolution are more talking points than realistic climate solutions.

The wheelin’ dealin’ COP president

They are, however, very useful conversation starters for the real business at hand — and that is to sell more oil, gas, and petrochemicals.

Here is just a sampling of some of the talking points Al Jaber was instructed to raise on his pre-COP listening tour.

  • For a meeting with Toghrul Feyziyev, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources he was told to say that the UAE was “eager to support” the country’s “vision of” becoming a “secure energy hub for Europe, reporting natural gas, and potentially, clean electricity.” 
  • In Brazil, his talking points instructed him to ask Ministry of Environment head Marina Silva to arrange a call with the “appropriate minister” to secure a purchase of Brazil’s giant Braskem petrochemical maker.
  • In France, he was instructed to seek cooperation to promote hydrogen and carbon capture to decarbonize hard-to-abate heavy industries like steel. The deal is expected to be announced at COP.
  • In Germany, he emphasized to Morgan the UAE’s strong support for making Hamburg a “hydrogen hub” and supplying Germany with 25 percent of its expected hydrogen energy demand. 
  • In Mexico, he was instructed to discuss potential joint LNG and methane abatement projects, 

And on and on it went, country by country. 

Funny enough, we could not reach Dr. Sultan for comment, but his key message is that without the inclusion of fossil fuel leaders in the climate conversation, there can be no orderly transition to a low-carbon economy. “The world must urgently accelerate the energy transition in an orderly, just, and equitable way,” he says.

“Fossil fuels are here to stay”

You can expect a lot of this kind of carnival barking over the next two weeks in Dubai. Barring a miracle, Al Jaber will ensure that even though the world has, for the first time, crashed through to 2ºC of warming (and well before 2030 as initially predicted by climate scientists), the oil and gas industry will continue to accelerate the use of oil and gas. 

Veteran energy journalist Bill Spindle estimates that the UAE and Saudi Arabia aim to add at least 2.5 to 3 million barrels per day to their oil production capacity by 2027, equal to about 2% of the global oil market. He writes that both are also planning new natural gas production, with Saudi starting to draw from a huge new field beginning in 2025. Qatar recently signed contracts to supply liquified natural gas to China and other countries until at least 2050. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) also recently forecast global oil demand would rise to 116 million barrels per day, from about 101 million today, by 2045. “Fossil fuels are here to stay,” declared Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s son at a recent conference in Riyadh. 

That will do wonders for the bottom line of petrostates and oil companies but spells disaster for humanity. 

Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.