In the UAE, a top oil executive leads global climate talks : NPR

The UAE has picked a top oil executive to lead global climate talks this year. He’s using his platform to galvanize investments in clean energy, but is also backing fossil fuels.


Many environmentalists were disappointed to hear this year’s United Nations climate conference will be presided over by an oil executive. COP 28 will be in the United Arab Emirates. They get to choose. Their pick – Sultan al-Jaber spoke today at an energy forum in Abu Dhabi. NPR’s Aya Batrawy joins us from the conference. Aya, we hear the noise in the background. Thanks for being with us.


SIMON: How could this appointment affect climate talks.

BATRAWY: So al-Jaber is the CEO of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company, Adnoc. But he’s also led a renewable energy company, and he’s been involved in COP summit negotiations for years as the country’s climate envoy. But despite his background in clean energy, his role as head of one of the world’s biggest oil companies is drawing criticism from environmentalists.

They say it’s a conflict of interest and a cause for concern as he presides over these complex talks to reduce carbon emissions. But as CEO, a key part of his mandate is to keep pumping oil. And that forms the backbone of this country’s economy. So that’s at odds with international efforts to limit warming from heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

SIMON: Did he talk about that today?

BATRAWY: He did. But as the newly named president of the U.N. climate talks this year, he was more nuanced in tone than in past speeches where he would openly call for more investments in oil and gas. Here’s some of what he said today at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi.


SULTAN AL-JABER: We are way off track. The world is playing catch-up when it comes to the key Paris goal of holding global temperatures down to 1.5 degrees. And the hard reality is that in order to achieve this goal, global emissions must fall 43% by 2030.

BATRAWY: So this aligns with scientific studies that say to do this, the world has to rapidly phase out fossil fuels. But al-Jaber’s view is that as long as the world runs on hydrocarbons, the solution isn’t to immediately replace them, but to make them less carbon-intensive. Here he is again.


AL-JABER: We’ll work with the energy industry on accelerating the decarbonization – reducing methane and expanding hydrogen. Let’s keep our focus on holding back emissions, not progress.

BATRAWY: Yeah, so basically, there’s no indication the UAE’s backing off on its long-term plans of pumping more oil and gas. And other major producers, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, note that plastic and even the clothes we wear are byproducts of fossil fuels. So the transition is going to take time.

SIMON: Do these oil-producing countries acknowledge that the world is trying to move away from fossil fuels?

BATRAWY: I mean, absolutely. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they want to profit from this industrial-scale transformation toward clean energy. And they’re investing hundreds of billions of dollars in renewable energy. They’ve committed to net zero, vowing to offset and cut their emissions in the coming decades. But this only applies to emissions within their own borders and not to how their oil is being used in countries like China and India. So environmentalists say they don’t accept that. And even al-Jaber himself acknowledged, as you heard, countries are moving way too slow in cutting down carbon emissions. So global temperatures are rising. It will take years to reverse this. And it’s impacting food and water security right here in the Middle East, where some of the world’s hottest temperatures are being recorded.

SIMON: NPR’s Aya Batrawy, thanks so much.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Scott.


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