Letter from COP28: The One Led by an Oil Company CEO
By Elizabeth May
December 6, 2023
COP28 opened on November 30 and is scheduled to close on December 12, so we are about halfway through, though not halfway to successful conclusions for combatting climate change.
There are so many aspects of this meeting that are unusual. This is my 14th COP and it feels different in so many ways. There are no major protests in the streets. At previous COPs such as Glasgow, Montreal and Madrid, the marches impacted negotiations.
Democracies provide much better venues for public mobilization. It is not the first time that COP has been held in a non-democratic country. Back in 2012, COP18 was held in Doha Qatar, where the hereditary emir holds all executive and legislative power. He appoints the government, including the deputy prime minister, who served as president of COP in 2012.
So, this is not the first COP held in an oil-rich country in the Middle East ruled by hereditary autocrats. It is, however, the first COP ever chaired by the CEO of an oil company, Sultan al Jaber, minister of industry and president of the state-owned ADNOC. The choice of President of the COP is the domain of the host country. It has always been someone with government credentials – usually either that country’s minister of environment or occasionally a minister of foreign affairs. Laurent Fabius, president of COP21 in Paris, was foreign minister under Francois Hollande, but also a former prime minister. Other than the Doha COP, the president of the COP, “president” being the chair of the sessions and key convenor, pulling groups of countries into consensus decisions, has always been an elected member of a government.
In the days leading to COP28’s opening it was reported that Sultan al-Jaber and the government of UAE was hoping to ink new deals to open greater areas to fossil fuel development. As COP President, Al-Jaber denied the claims. He emphasized that his role could be a plus, as it would take an oil executive to really talk to the industry. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. As we used to say, it took Richard Nixon to recognize China.
But in the early days of the COP, an optics-shifting video clip surfaced. At first, it appeared that during the COP, Jaber had said there was no science to support the idea that a phase out of fossil fuels was required to hold to 1.5 degrees. Scientists were incensed. It turned out Al-Jaber’s comments in the video were in response to former Irish president Mary Robinson pushing him. It appeared he lost his temper — no excuse there. But it also was the case that the interview was well before COP opened.
The COP28 president, held a press conference after The Guardian‘s report on his comments, saying he had been misrepresented and offering an impassioned defence of his background and belief in science. He then went on to say “the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuels, is essential” and accused those who reported his initial comments of undermining his message.
In addition to complications generated by this COP president’s status an oil industry CEO, there are more fossil fuel lobbyists here by far than at any other COP. As Al Gore put it, referencing the ineffective and expensive non-solution called carbon capture, the fossil fuel industry has shown it is far better at capturing politicians than emissions.
This COP boasts that it is the COP with the largest-ever number of participants. But it feels strangely uncrowded, the broad thoroughfares for pedestrians between the futuristic structures of Expo City Dubai, where the COP is being held, are spacious. But I never see what feels like a crowded space, leaving aside the line- ups for credentials on the first day.
The author in her COP28 emissions cap
At the Canadian delegation meeting Tuesday morning, the lead negotiator explained they were still looking for a room big enough to accommodate all Canadians so we could all gather at least once. Apparently, there are 1,000 Canadians here, including what are reportedly “hundreds” of Alberta delegates accompanying Premier Danielle Smith. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, Ontario and Quebec also have largish delegations.
From the Canadian Parliament, there are fewer than usual. Normally (at least since the Liberal government came to power in 2015 and returned to the practice of previous governments of including opposition MPs on delegations), all parties in Parliament are offered credentials and at least partial reimbursement of costs. This year, the Conservatives decided not to accept the invitation but said they would participate “virtually.” A far as I know, that is not possible. But who knows, I may run into a hologram of Gerard Deltell and eat my words. Of federal ministers, only Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Industry Minister Francois Phillippe Champagne are here.
Normally, there would be more Canadian cabinet ministers at COP. The remote voting app developed through COVID does not allow voting if you are outside of Canada, nor are we allowed to zoom into Parliament for virtual debates. And the normal practice for such events — pre-COVID — would be for the opposition to agree to “pair votes” so Cabinet members could travel and not worry the government could fall in their absence. The Conservatives have refused to pair votes. So, for MPs, I am the only one here for the whole meeting. Senator Rosa Galvez, a recognized expert in climate finance, is here, as well as Senator Robert Black.
One must not forget, although it seems not to have been treated as such by the Canadian media, Canada’s head of state gave a major address in the opening days. King Charles called for greater climate action, declaring: “We are carrying out a vast, frightening experiment” and sounding at times distinctly Canadian:
“Canada experienced its most severe wildfire season on record, with eighteen-and-a-half million hectares of land burned, causing terrible loss of life and property and, of course, releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to dangerous ‘feedback loops’, to which climate scientists have been alerting us for decades…As I have tried to say on many occasions, unless we rapidly repair and restore nature’s unique economy, based on harmony and balance, which is our ultimate sustainer, our own economy and survivability will be imperilled.”
“We need to remember that the Indigenous worldview teaches us that we are all connected,” the King continued. “Not only as human beings, but with all living things and all that sustains life. As part of this grand and sacred system, harmony with nature must be maintained. The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.”
The language of the final decisions is a long way from agreed upon. And, so it goes. More long days and nights of negotiations in windowless rooms over semicolons and commas lie ahead. Wondering if political courage will emerge, or whether this COP will play out to be, as Gore has described it and as many others fear it will be, an “abuse of public trust”.