May 25, 2023

Washington Post: Oil executive will lead world climate talks. Lawmakers are trying to oust him.

Members of Congress and the European Parliament are urging the removal of Sultan Al Jaber as president of the next U.N. Climate Change Conference

Original article by Maxine Joselow appeared in the Washington Post.

A coalition of members of Congress and the European Parliament on Tuesday called for the ouster of the oilexecutive leading the next U.N. Climate Change Conference in the United Arab Emirates this fall.

Tuesday’s letter represents a remarkable rebuke of the decision to name Sultan Al Jaber, who runs the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president of the climate summit. It comes as human rights advocates also voice anger and disbelief over the UAE’s invitation of Syria’s embattled president to the climate talks, known as COP28.

Both climate and human rights activists say the integrity of the climate gatherings are at stake.

“It’s pretty straightforward: The head of a national oil company should not be the president-designate of a climate conference,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who signed the letter along with 34 other congressional Democrats, said in an interview. “It’s a slap in the face to young climate activists.”

While often mired in controversy, the annual COP negotiations remain the leading global forum for nations to address climate change, and pressure is mounting on them to deliver on past promises.

Some participants argue the fossil fuel industry must be part of the discussion, but Khanna said that having an oil executive lead the global conference goes too far.

“Sure, have them at the table,” he said. “Just don’t put them at the head of the table.”

The letter is addressed to leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, including President Biden, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. It urges these leaders to “engage in diplomatic efforts to secure the withdrawal” of Al Jaber.

“With commonsense reforms to help restore public faith in the COP process severely jeopardized by having an oil company executive at the helm,” the letter says, “we respectfully submit that different leadership is necessary to help ensure that COP28 is a serious and productive climate summit.”

Adnan Amin, the chief executive of the COP28 talks, said in an emailed statement that Al Jaber is uniquely qualified to lead the conference, noting that he also serves as chairman of Masdar, a renewable energy company based in AbuDhabi.

“Dr. Sultan has a 20-year career in the renewable energy space,” Amin said. “Masdar is one of the world’s largest investors in renewable energy, with 25 thousand megawatts of operational clean energy on its books right now and a goal to expand to 100 GW by 2030.”

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry has also voiced strong support for the appointment of Al Jaber, calling him a“terrific choice” because of — not despite — his role atop an oil giant.

“That company knows it needs to transition” away from fossil fuels, Kerry told the Associated Press in January after attending an energy conference in Abu Dhabi. “He knows — and the leadership of the UAE is committed to transitioning.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who helped organize the letter, pushed back on this assessment. He noted that the UAE plans to increase its crude oil production from 4 million to 5 million barrels a day, even as the country pledges to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

“The fact that he’s engaged in the renewable industry is fine,” Whitehouse said of Al Jaber. “But you can engage in the renewable industry all day long, and as long as you’re still pumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere, that’s where the danger lies.”

In a speech in Berlin this month, Al Jaber said countries “must be laser focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions, while phasing up viable, affordable, zero-carbon alternatives.” Many energy experts interpreted his comments as an endorsement of carbon capture and storage technology, which sucks carbon emissions out of the air and stores them deep underground.

The landmark climate law that Biden signed last year, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, provided billions of dollars of new subsidies for carbon capture technology. But critics contend that the technology is costly, ineffective and difficult to scale. And ironically, the place it has proved most successful is getting more oil out of the ground.

Carbon capture is “just one of the strategies used by fossil fuel companies to buy time,” said Manon Aubry, a signatory of the letter who co-chairs the Left group in the European Parliament.

Presidents of the annual climate talks play a ceremonial yet critical role. In public, they serve as a sort of emcee of the event, delivering speeches and welcoming delegates. Behind closed doors, they help resolve disputes among diplomats from nearly 200 nations, and they help ensure that the final agreement makes meaningful progress toward staving off the most catastrophic impacts of warming.

At last year’s talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, climate activists criticized the presidency for failing to anticipate and address some of the thorniest issues facing negotiators. The two weeks of talks culminated with a deal to compensate vulnerable nations for costly climate disasters, but they but made little progress on emissions reduction efforts that could prevent even worse disasters in the future.

In addition to targeting Al Jaber, this week’s letter also asks the UAE to require companies to disclose their climate-related lobbying and campaign contributions before participating in the climate summit, echoing calls from hundreds of advocacy groups for greater accountability measures at the talks. The letter notes that more than 600 fossil fuel industry lobbyists attended last year’s COP27 summit in Egypt, dwarfing the delegation from any country except the UAE. (The industry sent more than 500 lobbyists to the prior COP26 talks in Glasgow, Scotland, outnumbering every single nation.)

The letter comes after the UAE last week invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the climate summit, drawing swift condemnation from human rights activists. Amnesty International called the move a “sick joke” that would normalize relations with the Assad regime, which has been accused of using chemical weapons and targeting civilian areas during a bloody civil war that has lasted more than a decade. On Friday, Assad was also welcomed back to the Arab League after an 11-year suspension.

Adam Hodge, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said in an email that “it’s up to the UAE who they invite to COP.” But Hodge added that the United States has “no plans to normalize relations” with the Assad regime “absent authentic progress” on resolving the conflict in Syria.

Amin, the chief executive of the COP28 talks, defended the invitation to the Syrian leader.

“COP28 is committed to an inclusive COP process that produces transformational solutions,” he said. “This can only happen if we have everyone in the room.”

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