COP28: Asking a fox to guard the hen house
In the early 1990s, when concern about climate change first became widespread, the "signal" of human-induced effects did not unambiguously emerge from the "noise" of climate variability. However, because of our unbridled use of fossil fuels, we can now clearly distinguish between the signal and the noise, with the signal telling us loudly that the Earth's climate is changing for the worse. Indeed, with a temperature rise that has been especially pronounced in recent decades, we humans have taken the Earth's atmosphere into a regime that our planet has not witnessed for millions of years.
Armed with a host of irrefutable evidence – past climate reconstructions, computer model experiments, statistical inferences, socioeconomic information, scientific data and pattern-based fingerprint studies – that point to a hotter future, world leaders and their representatives have met 27 times, beginning in 1995, at the Conference of Parties to address the crucial issues related to climate change. As expected, the conferences failed to make any difference in the level of threat we are facing today because they usually ended without any unified strategies to mitigate the destructive impacts of climate change. In the meantime, our planet is heating up, causing extreme weather-related events that will create, in a very short order, a new planet – still recognisable, but violently out of balance.
Having said that, the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28), to be held in Dubai from November 30 to December 12, 2023, is advertised as a major global event of 2023. At the conference, besides brainstorming for the seventh time on how to put the world on course to meet the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement of limiting the rise of global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the other hot-button issue will be how to implement the recommendations made by the Transitional Committee set up at COP27 for the Loss and Damage Agreement.
Arguably, Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is the most paradoxical choice as the venue for COP28. That is because the economy of UAE is heavily dependent on revenues from petroleum and natural gas that are major sources of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
To add insult to the injury, the UAE has appointed Sultan Al Jaber, the Chief Executive Officer of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of the world's largest oil producers, to preside over COP28. Under his leadership, ADNOC pumps about four million barrels of crude oil a day, with plans to expand its production capacity to five million barrels a day by 2027, leading to concerns about increased emissions of carbon dioxide. Also, according to media reports, while running the show at COP28, he will retain his position at ADNOC.
Given the role fossil fuels play in driving climate change, such an egregious appointment of a top oil company executive to lead the most important climate conference of the year has caused a backlash among many groups and activists concerned with the effects of climate change. They are justifiably angered by the decision, to say the least, with some comparing it to asking the owner of a tobacco company to enforce an anti-smoking law. Furthermore, they are worried that it could derail the negotiating process at COP28, much to the delight of the fossil fuel industry.
Although Al Jaber has played a key role in shaping UAE's pathway toward clean energy, his appointment nevertheless raises some serious questions about the credibility of the UN in tackling climate change. What guarantee is there that he will not use the conference to covertly advance the interests of the fossil fuel industry? How can a person heading an industry that is responsible for the climate crisis avoid conflict of interest? While Al Jaber will have to grapple with the question of conflict of interest, we should at the same time be apprehensive that he will be negotiating on behalf of humanity to save our planet, which requires phasing out the products of his own industry.
The Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international climate policy proposal for a seamless transition away from coal, oil and gas, told ABC News that Al Jaber's appointment is a "devastating blow to the climate negotiations at a critical moment in history." The UK-based humanitarian group ActionAid said that "For the summit hosts to be taken seriously as honest brokers for change, they need to go above and beyond to avoid a conflict of interest. This is vital for the safety and protection of our planet. Unfortunately, COP28 looks like it is off to a bad start in that regard."
At COP27, held last year in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, more than 600 lobbyists of the fossil fuel industry exercised outsized influence at determining the outcome of the summit. This time, activists warn that asking Al Jaber to preside over COP28 could undermine the outcome even without the presence of lobbyists. Hence, for achieving ambitious climate pledges, they want him to relinquish his oil industry job before taking up the post of the Chair of COP28. Otherwise, it will be tantamount to raising the white flag and surrendering to the oil companies and their lobbyists.
Finally, handing the gavel of the conference on climate change to an oil company honcho is like asking a fox to guard a hen house. Simply stated, it will be foolish to expect the fossil fuel industry to sign its own death sentence.
Dr Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University in New York, US.