Fossil fuel production was always going to be a hot topic at the COP28 meeting in the United Arab Emirates, which runs until 12 December, especially as the president of the conference for this meeting is Sultan Al Jaber, a man who also heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company which produces more than 3m barrels of oil per day.
He found himself in hot water after video was released of him saying that there is “no scientific basis” to saying a phase down of fossil fuel usage is necessary to stop global temperatures exceeding Paris Climate Accord limits. He has since tried to walk-back and contextualise those comments, but the damage has already been done.
Further evidence of lack of movement from the big oil producing nations came from Suadi Arabi’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman who, when asked if the COP28 communique should call for a global phase-down of fossil fuels, replied “absolutely not.” Seeing as any text has to be unanimously agreed, his comments mean this summit will fail to make that fundamental policy shift.
He instead said that countries who were keen on phasing out fossil fuels should make their own plans and just get on with it. Saudi Arabia does have a “net zero by 2050” target, but rather than basing it on a reduction in consumption, the country expects to reach that through carbon capture and storage and reforestation.
Also, crucially, Saudi Arabia only counts the emissions from fossil fuels consumed within the country, there is no allowance made for the huge volumes of oil exported.
All of which means the country only has a plan to offset a tiny proportion of the carbon produced from its main industry while also having an effective veto on other countries being told to stop consuming its products.
This power from fossil fuel producers means that global carbon emissions are set to reach a new all-time record high, according to the Global Carbon Project (see Figure 1).
It also means that the correlation between global economic growth and demand for oil remains positive. The price of oil is more often driven by growth prospects than it is by OPEC supply cuts.
The world remains a very long way from the point where increasing economic activity can happen without an increase in fossil fuel consumption. It seems there will be little in COP28 to change that dynamic.
Fossil fuel producers engage in large-scale whataboutery in Dubai. The United Arab Emirates declared last month that two-third of the food served to the approximately 80,000 attendees at the COP28 summit in Dubai would be plant-based. The press release accompanying the announcement said the decision “exemplifies the ambition at the heart of COP28 and the desire of the UAE to leave ‘no stone unturned’ in its efforts to drive forward climate solutions at pace”.
The measure is part of a record amount of attention at this COP summit directed at agricultural emissions, with 10 December put aside for a full day of discussions under the heading “Food, Agriculture and Water”.
Already the event has produced the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action, a document signed by 134 nations, including Ireland. The document has many lofty goals, but is fairly light on substance.
There are ambitions in it to pursue broad engagement to integrate agriculture into long-term action plans before COP30, to scale up access to finance to transform and adapt agricultural systems to respond to climate change, to strengthen multilateral global trade and to accelerate science- and evidence-based innovations which increase sustainable agricultural productivity.
All very laudable, but also all sufficiently vague to carry little real threat of imminent change for the global agricultural industry. The declaration also noted that “agriculture and food systems are fundamental to the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.”
The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (yes, that is actually a thing) welcomed the declaration saying that food systems are taking their place at the heart of climate negotiations while raising concerns about the vague language in the text and the lack of measurable targets.
Holding a climate conference in a major fossil-fuel producing nation could only ever have gone the way COP28 seems to be going. The appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as president of the summit was likely the final nail in the coffin of any environmentalist ambitions for the conference.
ADNOC is almost unique among global major oil companies in that it is still making major investments to increase oil production, with the company having ambition to increase output by 25% by 2030.
Adding insult to injury are reports in recent weeks that the United Arab Emirates are using COP28 as a platform to discuss fossil fuel deals with 15 countries, including with China – by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
No wonder then that the authorities in the country want the world to look elsewhere when it comes to solving the climate change problem. Agriculture is an easy target. Reading the programme of events planned for the “Food, Agriculture and Water” day on 10 December, it seems that much of the focus is on helping the very poorest farmers in the global south, while also increasing investment in what are called “climate-smart” solutions to feeding the world.
Forgive my inner cynic, but that all sounds like a lot of hot air aimed at creating “teachable moments” and “learnings”, while producing absolutely zero of any real substance. But then, substance was never really the point of the finger wagging at agriculture. Global farming is just a useful foil to distract from how much the fossil fuel industry is driving climate change.
There’s an old saying which goes ‘it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it’. Few people in history have more been that man than the president of COP28.