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UAE names its oil company chief to lead U.N. climate talks

The Emirati Minister of State and the CEO of Abu Dhabi's state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber speaks at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Oct. 31, 2022.
Kamran Jebreili
/
AP
The Emirati Minister of State and the CEO of Abu Dhabi's state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber speaks at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Oct. 31, 2022.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates on Thursday named a veteran technocrat who both leads Abu Dhabi's state-run oil company and oversees its renewable energy efforts to be the president of the upcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Dubai, highlighting the balancing act ahead for this crude-producing nation.

Authorities nominated Sultan al-Jaber, a trusted confidant of UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who serves as CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. That firm pumps some 4 million barrels of crude a day and hopes to expand to 5 million daily.

Those revenues fuel the ambitions of this federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula — as well as the production of more of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that the U.N. negotiations hope to limit.

But al-Jaber also once led a once-ambitious project to have a $22 billion "carbon-neutral" city on Abu Dhabi's outskirts — an effort later pared back after the global financial crisis that struck the Emirates hard beginning in 2008. Even today, he serves as the chairman of Masdar, a clean energy company that grew out of the project.

"Sultan al-Jaber has the credentials and background to lean into trends that are already on going," said Ryan Bohl, a Mideast analyst for a risk-intelligence firm called the RANE Network. "Him being an oilman, I don't think that will be that big of a risk for him."

The Emirates' state-run WAM quoted al-Jaber, a climate envoy for years, as saying that it "will be a critical year in a critical decade for climate action." He called for "a pragmatic, realistic and solutions-oriented approach" to limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050. Scientists say that limit can avoid or at least lessen some of the most catastrophic future climate change harms.

Al-Jaber's nomination, however, drew immediate criticism. Harjeet Singh, who is the head of Global Political Strategy at Climate Action Network International, said al-Jaber holding the CEO title at the state oil company posed "an unprecedented and alarming conflict of interest."

"There can be no place for polluters at a climate conference, least of all presiding over a COP," Singh said.

Alice Harrison of Global Witness put it even more bluntly: "You wouldn't invite arms dealers to lead peace talks. So why let oil executives lead climate talks?" Greenpeace said it was "deeply alarmed" by al-Jaber's appointment, adding: "This sets a dangerous precedent, risking the credibility of the UAE and the trust that has been placed in them."

Each year, the country hosting the U.N. negotiations known as the Conference of the Parties — where COP gets its name — nominates a person to chair the talks. Hosts typically pick a veteran diplomat as the talks can be incredibly difficult to steer between competing nations and their interests. The nominee's position as "COP president" is confirmed by delegates at the start of the talks, usually without objections.

The caliber of COP presidents has varied over the years. Observers widely saw Britain's Alok Sharma as energetic and committed to achieving an ambitious result.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, on the other hand, faced criticism by some for the chaotic and at times non-transparent way he presided over last year's meeting.

A call by countries, including India and the United States, for a phase down of oil and natural gas, for instance, never reached a public discussion during the meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where Shoukry controlled the agenda.

Activists worry that COP being held in a Mideast nation reliant on fossil fuel sales for a second year in a row could see something similar happen in the Emirates.

WAM said the Emirates had invested "more than $50 billion in renewable energy projects across 70 countries, with plans to invest a minimum of $50 billion over the next decade." It wasn't immediately clear where those figures came from.

Mubadala, Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund, has invested some $3.9 billion since 2018 in renewable energy, according to the New York-based research firm Global SWF. Masdar listed having $14.3 billion in investments in 2020. Masdar did not respond to questions about its investments Thursday.

By comparison, Mubadala invested $9.8 billion over the same period in oil and gas projects, Global SWF said.

The UAE is home to a massive solar park in Dubai, as well as the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, which is the Arabian Peninsula's only atomic energy source. But it also requires vast amounts of energy to run the desalination plants that brought green golf courses to its desert expanses, power the air conditioners cooling its cavernous malls in the heat of the summer and power heavy industries like aluminum smelters.

The UAE's clean energy policies grew in the mid-2000s as Dubai's real-estate boom saw it constructing the world's tallest building and massive, palm-shaped archipelagos off its coast. The World Wildlife Fund at the time estimated the UAE had the world's largest ecological footprint per capita — meaning that each of its residents used more resources on average than those living in any other nation. The UAE still ranks high on similar lists.

The Masdar City project grew out of that concern of being tarnished, before being pared back.

"By us actually doing it and investing money, we had access to lessons learned that no one had access to," al-Jaber told The Associated Press in 2010. "We have to learn, adjust, adapt and move forward. We can't be rigid."

The UAE then pivoted Masdar City into a campus now hosting the U.N.'s International Renewable Energy Agency and the firm itself into investing into renewables at home and abroad. Joe Biden, just before leaving office as America's vice president, even visited Masdar City in 2016.

Analysts believe the Emirates is trying to maximize its profits before the world increasingly turns to renewables. The Emirates itself has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 — a target that remains difficult to assess and one that authorities haven't fully explained how they'll reach.

The UAE "have made no bones about being a major oil and gas producer and presumably he is very well connected to rulers in the country," said Alden Meyer, a longtime climate talk observer at the environmental think tank E3G. "I hope (al-Jaber) has good diplomatic and negotiation skills and the ability to build consensus and compromise."

COP28 will be held at Dubai's Expo City from Nov. 30 through Dec. 12.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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