EU climate chief defends oil CEO’s appointment as COP28 boss

Even though Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber is the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, he is “extremely well placed to lead us into a successful COP” because of his involvement in renewable energies, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans told EURACTIV.

In an exclusive interview, Timmermans said he has had many meetings with Al Jaber and that “the incoming president is ideally placed to play a leading role in this huge, huge transition”.

“I think people might be focusing too much on his role as CEO of an oil company,” he told EURACTIV at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) assembly in Abu Dhabi.

“They should look into what he’s been doing over the last years. He’s been leading the charge to also take the oil and gas industry into a sustainable world,” he explained.

The UAE will host COP28 at the end of the year and has chosen Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber to head the conference. Al Jaber is the country’s minister for industry and advanced technology, as well as chairman of renewable energy company Masdar, and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

His ties to the oil industry have led campaigners to criticise his appointment.

“Greenpeace is deeply alarmed at the appointment of an oil company CEO to lead the global climate negotiations,” said Tracy Carty, global climate politics expert with Greenpeace International.

“This sets a dangerous precedent, risking the credibility of the UAE and the trust that has been placed in them by the UN on behalf of people, current and future generations. COP28 needs to conclude with an uncompromised commitment to a just phase out of all fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas,” she added.

Meanwhile, Tasneem Essop, the executive director of Climate Action Network International, said that Al Jaber needs to step down as CEO of ADNOC or “it will be tantamount to a full scale capture of the UN climate talks by a petrostate national oil company and its associated fossil fuel lobbyists”.

While Timmermans said he understands campaigners may be taken aback by the choice, he asked them to “take a moment to look at his wider CV”.

“You will see that this is a man you have to take seriously and is well placed to take us into a successful COP28,” he told EURACTIV.

Alongside being CEO of an oil company, Al Jaber is the chairman of Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s “flagship renewable energy company,” founded in 2006.

According to the company’s website, it is one of the fastest-growing renewable energy companies globally, working in over 40 countries. In 2021, it expanded its clean energy portfolio by 40% to a total capacity of 15 gigawatts, which it says can mitigate 19.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

By 2030, the company aims to have 100 gigawatts in its portfolio and produce one million tonnes of green hydrogen.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of IRENA’s assembly on Saturday, Al Jaber told delegates that there is a lot of work ahead to close the gap between ambition and reality and, in this endeavour, “no sector offers as much potential as renewable energy”.

“Over the next seven years, we will need to more than triple renewable energy capacity worldwide. The world must move much, much faster than ever before,” he added.

In its presidency of COP28, the UAE is working “hand in hand” with IRENA and will “propose transformative solutions that are based on science and fact, backed by policy and endorsed by business and industry”.

“In short, we will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of inclusive climate progress,” he added.

The United Arab Emirates has the world’s fourth largest per capita carbon footprint behind Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. In 2019, it was the seventh largest petroleum producer in the world, with export revenues topping $70 billion.

The Climate Action Tracker also rates the country’s green action as “highly insufficient”. While the country updated its target under the Paris Agreement at COP27, it “is also planning for a significant increase in fossil fuel production and consumption, which is not consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C,” according to the analysis.

Speaking to journalists at the IRENA conference, UNDP administrator Achim Steiner said: “I would say to those who are critical, for example, of the United Arab Emirates [to] study the economic history of the UAE in the last 20 years”.

“You may be surprised that what was once literally 99% of the economy of UAE, is today almost tipped on its head,” he said.

According to Steiner, any country building its economy around oil, gas or coal is “putting their own future at severe risk” because “there is no doubt on every signal that you can read on political, economic and energy policy, that we are heading towards a decarbonised world”.

Timmermans echoed this, telling EURACTIV that the world is moving away from the fossil fuels-dominated economic and social structure.

“It would be ideal if people like [Al Jaber] could take their colleagues from the oil and gas industry into the same direction in terms of understanding that also this industry needs to incorporate new realities into the way they function,” said Timmermans.

The UAE did not respond to EURACTIV’s request for comment on the criticism around Al Jaber’s appointment.


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