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Drama in the desert: Al Jaber backtracks on fossil fuel science

It is less than a week since COP28, the largest ever U.N climate summit, began in the oil kingdom city of Dubai, but drama is already at a peak after Sultan Al Jaber questioned the science behind phasing out fossil fuels.

Attendees walk through the COP28 summit in Dubai, on December 3rd, 2023 (Photo credit: Sophie Davies/Gas Outlook)

(Dubai, United Arab Emirates) — We’re only five days into COP28 in Dubai, a city that rises abruptly from the desert, but tensions are already writ large — something we’re more accustomed to seeing in the very final days of this two-week long annual climate summit.

Today Sultan Al Jaber hit back at critics and defended his belief in science, after a damning Guardian article revealed yesterday that the COP28 president thought there was “no science” to support the phaseout of fossil fuels to keep global warming below 1.5C. He said, to the alarm of many, that there was “no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C.”

Al Jaber, also the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company Adnoc, made the unprecedented comments in November but the fallout from the just-surfaced interview has been acute barely a week into the U.N. climate talks, which were already on fragile footing after the BBC unmasked documents last week suggesting that the UAE’s COP28 team had plans to discuss oil and gas deals with 15 countries while playing host.

Al Jaber’s fossil fuel science u-turn was needed and it was needed quickly. He told a press conference today: “I respect the science in everything I do. I have repeatedly said that it is the science that has guided the principles or strategy as COP28 president.” But the levels of mistrust in this COP president are at an all-time high, and may not recover — unless a major achievement (the only major achievement) of the summit were to place over the next eight days, that of an agreement to phase-out unabated fossil fuels, which around half the countries in attendance support.

Speakers at COP28 today were not afraid to voice their concerns over the messages that this climate summit, only the second (after Qatar, in 2012) to be hosted in a petrostate, is sending out. Werner Hoyer, President of the European Investment Bank, warned, gravely, that there seemed to be a “relaxation” of climate goals taking place at the summit, and that this would prove “detrimental.” Several other speakers stressed the need to stick to Paris Agreement goals and move towards a phase-out of fossil fuels.

But fossil fuels are still ominously absent from some COP28 official language. It was a milestone that yesterday saw the first-ever Health Day since the climate talks began in 1995; however the resulting health statement from the UAE omitted to mention fossil fuels, confirming the worst fears of health professionals in the lead up to the event that the dire impact of fossil fuels on global health would be ignored.

Saturday’s announcement over fossil fuels — which launched the so-called Oil and Gas Decarbonisation Charter — was made to much fanfare, but lacks substance (it leaves out Scope 3 emissions; by far the worst emissions category) and is not a legally-binding commitment. Critics fear that the flurry of announcements in the first few days has created a smokescreen. There is still time for serious, binding climate commitments to take place. But as the last rays of sun went down on this smog-filled city, bringing day five and its drama to a close, the air was still thick with uncertainty.

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