UN climate chief hails 'unique insights' of embattled COP28 head
The UN's top climate official hailed the "unique insight" of a UAE oil executive whose naming as president of the key COP28 climate summit has outraged advocates and experts.
Speaking to AFP at climate negotiations in Germany, UN Climate Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said Sultan al-Jaber, who heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, also has experience in developing renewable energy and is deeply familiar with the long-running UN talks.
The process under which nearly 200 nations are grappling with how to stop global warming and cope with its impacts "is an inclusive one," Stiell said six months ahead of the crucial COP28 summit in Dubai.
"One person, one entity, one country doesn't have all of the answers, it requires the input and knowledge of all," he added.
"Having Dr. Sultan's experience, his knowledge of the industry, what he has done both in terms of the oil and gas sector but also renewables, gives him a unique insight."
Reaction to host United Arab Emirates' appointment of al-Jaber in January as president of the COP28 summit in December has caused a furor among green groups and climate experts, as well as calls for him to step aside.
In May, more than 100 lawmakers from the United States and in the European Union signed an open letter to US president Joe Biden and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen asking them to pressure the UAE to replace al-Jaber.
Burning fossil fuels is by far the single largest driver of global warming, and his position as an oil executive in one of the world's largest oil and gas companies is seen by many as conflicting with the core mission of the UN talks.
'Way off track'
At the same time, Al-Jaber has gotten ringing endorsements from climate stalwarts such as US climate envoy John Kerry, and former New York Mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg.
Stiell himself knows al-Jaber from the climate circuit, where—as the environment minister from Grenada for five years—he pushed aggressively for rapid decarbonization and spoke on behalf of the world's most climate vulnerable nations.
The UN chief said the controversy surrounding al-Jaber could be an "opportunity" to confront head-on the question of how to deal with fossil fuels, which are not even mentioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
"The science is clear: we need to phase down and phase out all fossil fuels," Stiell said. "We also need to ramp up renewable energy deployment. There are two sides of the equation."
"Whether parties take advantage of that opportunity to explore and to come up with decisions that are aligned with the science, that remains to be seen," he added.
COP28 will see the first-ever Global Stocktake of progress made towards the goals laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls for capping global warming at "well below" two degrees Celsius, and 1.5C if possible.
"The conclusion of the global stocktake is a moment of truth," Stiell said. "We know that we are way off track, that the gap between where we need to be and where we are is massive."
"How do we respond to those truths?"
Despite this underlying urgency, the technical talks in Bonn, Germany began with a stand-off on whether the forum's so-called Mitigation Work Program—set up to accelerate emissions reduction—will even appear on the formal agenda.
"Trying to get close to 200 countries to point in the same direction isn't an easy thing," Stiell said when asked about the stalemate.
"You'll often have agenda items that are held hostage, not because there is anything offensive about it but because some parties believe they have something else to gain later on in the negotiations."
Controversy has also flared around the enthusiasm expressed by oil and gas exporting states, including the UAE, for technological solutions that would draw down carbon emissions without phasing out the use of fossil fuels themselves.
"To achieve dramatic reductions in emissions, all technologies and all levers available need to be used," Stiell acknowledged.
"We're in very difficult times, but there is hope," he said, pointing to the rapid development of renewable energy, which now attracts significantly more investment each year that new fossil fuel energy.
© 2023 AFP