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Can the UAE Reconcile its COP28 Agenda with its Plans to Accelerate Oil Production?

The UAE, reliant on producing and exporting heavily polluting fuels, is likely to oppose the transformative measures required to incentivise nations to move away from new oil and gas production

Photo: Khatawut Chaemchamras/EyeEm/Alamy

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Ahead of the COP28 UN climate change conference in November, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Climate Envoy Sultan Al Jaber told a group of climate ministers in Berlin that “in a pragmatic, just and well-managed energy transition, we must be laser focused on phasing-out fossil fuel emissions while phasing and scaling up viable, affordable zero-carbon alternatives”.

While measures have been implemented by the UN to compel fossil fuel lobbyists to identify themselves after they dominated proceedings at the previous COP conference – sending a larger delegation than any single country except the UAE – concerns have been raised over whether COP28 can enforce meaningful decarbonisation objectives. 

Sultan Al Jaber, the host of the Conference, is head of the state-owned oil firm ADNOC, a company which saw its profits increase by 33% last year, and which reportedly plans to expand its oil and gas production by the equivalent of 7.5 billion barrels of oil – 90% of which would have to remain in the ground, according to recommendations from the International Energy Agency (IEA). These state that no new oil and gas can be extracted if the planet is to remain within 1.5°C of warming.

Last November, ADNOC announced a $150 billion “accelerated growth strategy” over the next five years, which includes the construction of a project in Upper Zakum, the second-largest offshore oil field in the world. According to its website, ADNOC plans to “increase the field capacity of Upper Zakum to one million barrels per day by 2024. 

Al-Jaber has faced calls from environmental campaigners to resign from the presidency of COP28. Tasneem Essop, executive director of the NGO Climate Action Network International, likened it to “putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty”; while Nils Bartsch, of environmental and human rights advocacy group Urgewald, has referred to it as “a mockery of COP as an institution”.

“Appointing an oil and gas executive as COP President displays a complete lack of awareness of the problems at hand,” Bartsch added. “It is a fatal political signal to the world.”

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Opportunity for Greenwashing?

Nations reliant on producing and exporting fossil fuels and carbon-intensive products have marred previous COP conferences by attempting to dilute, or otherwise alter, key arrangements which incentivise divestment from fossil fuels.

As COP26 concluded, an agreement to phase-out the use of coal power was downgraded, with the final text pledging to “phase-down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable”.

Days prior to COP26, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and several OPEC countries lobbied to dilute the findings of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which advocated for “substantial reductions in fossil fuel use, major investments in low-carbon energy forms, switching to low-carbon energy carriers, and energy efficiency and conservation efforts”.

Disputing that significant reductions in fossil fuel usage were necessary to reduce emissions, an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resource stated that “the use of ‘transformation’ should be avoided as it has policy implications by requiring immediate policy actions”. 

The advisor claimed that the IPCC’s draft “undermines all carbon removals technologies such as CCU/CCS (Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage), and limits the options for decision [sic] makers to carbon neutrality”. 

Similarly, the UAE has sought to evade the stringent measures required to dramatically reduce fossil fuel usage and shift to alternative forms of energy production, which may include placing strict limits on the construction of new oil and gas infrastructure and the export of carbon intensive goods such as meat and dairy products.

Al Jaber has called for “smart government regulation to… make carbon capture commercially viable”, having told the Munich Security Conference in February that “we need to adopt a diversified energy mix approach”.

The emphasis placed by Al-Jaber on reducing fossil fuel emissions, as opposed to limiting the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure, suggests that COP28 may advocate for the widespread adoption of speculative technologies such as CCUS and CDR (carbon dioxide removal), alongside prolonged oil and gas development.

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As I have previously argued in these pages, while CCUS may be a viable technology on a small scale, it is inadequate in significantly reducing emissions from major oil and gas-fired projects.

It has been utilised by the fossil fuel industry to prolong new oil extraction while evading investment in clean energy. According to Friends of the Earth Scotland, “81% of carbon captured to date has been used to extract more oil via the process of Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)… this means CCS is being predominantly used for carbon emitting oil extraction that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible”.

Influencing British Politics

Following global efforts to boycott Russian energy imports in the aftermath of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the UAE has established itself as a major exporter of oil to Europe.

In the year since the invasion, the average monthly value of its oil imports to Britain was £195 million – an increase of £110 million compared to the previous year. The UAE has also agreed to invest £10 billion in ‘priority’ British industries including a BP hydrogen project in Teesside, having established a 25% stake in a venture which intends to produce ‘blue’ hydrogen (noted for its high methane content).

Britain, which imported £19.3 billion in fossil fuels from petrostates over the past year – a sum which included £6.9 billion from Qatar, £3.4 billion from Saudi Arabia and £2.6 billion from Kuwait – continues to rely on oil and gas, having blocked the development of onshore wind and exported the majority of domestically-produced oil, which is incompatible with British refineries. 

Last October, then Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg met with Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak – an ADNOC board member and an advisor to the UAE’s President – to discuss trading relations. Rees-Mogg reportedly claimed that “we have to stop demonising oil and gas”, while Al Mubarak argued that “issues around investment” had emerged as a consequence of initiatives to divest from fossil fuel production.

Since COP26 – when independent scientific body the Climate Action Tracker released a report stating that “there is a massive credibility, action and commitment gap that casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net zero goals put forward by more than 140 countries, covering 90% of global emissions” – scant progress has been made on accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels and towards decarbonisation.

The concern is that COP28 is likely to continue this trend.

The UAE, a nation reliant on producing and exporting heavily polluting fuels, is likely to oppose the transformative measures required to incentivise nations to move away from new oil and gas production, instead prioritising technologies such as carbon capture, which are still in their infancy. 

While figures such as Sultan Al-Jaber tout the importance of oil and gas as a “transition fuel” – a common tactic among those who seek to delay a substantive shift towards clean energy – the UAE continues to establish itself as a primary exporter of oil following international boycotts of Russian energy. If Western countries are unable to adequately divest from oil and gas, it is unsurprising that petrostates will continue to dominate international trade and derail climate change negotiations. 

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