Should an Oil Executive Oversee Climate Talks? The U.A.E. Thinks So.

A decision by the United Arab Emirates to select the head of its national oil company, one of the world’s largest, to oversee U.N. climate talks in Dubai this year has drawn ire from environmental groups across the world.

But while the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber to lead the COP28 environmental gathering may seem like a contradiction, the move reflects the complex balancing act the United Arab Emirates is trying to pull off as the oil exporter prepares for a renewable future.

Mr. Al Jaber is chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which produces more than three million barrels of crude oil a day and is investing so it can produce much more. But he is also the country’s special envoy for climate change and the chairman of Masdar, a state-owned renewable energy company, which has pledged to build the world’s first carbon-neutral and zero-waste city.

Mr. Al Jaber’s appointment, which was announced Thursday, was welcomed by the American climate envoy, John Kerry, who cited his experience as a diplomat and business leader, as well as his role at Masdar.

“This unique combination will help bring all of the necessary stakeholders to the table to move faster and at scale,” Mr. Kerry said on Twitter.

Mr. Al Jaber, 49, has for over a decade been at the front of the emirate’s efforts to build a more sustainable future even as it continues to produce oil. In 2021, it became the first Gulf country to declare a net zero carbon emissions goal — joining a growing list of countries around the world who have made long-term climate pledges. (Their success at meeting those goals has so far been hard to evaluate.)

“Sultan Al Jaber is far from being your average oil executive,” said Karim Elgendy, a fellow on Middle East environmental issues at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “He has been spearheading the U.A.E.’s climate action well before and during his tenure as the head of Abu Dhabi’s national oil company.”

Mr. Al Jaber’s appointment as COP28 president is “representative of the U.A.E.’s approach to climate action,” he said, citing its pledges to reduce its own economy’s use of oil while at the same time doubling down on its “moral right to export every molecule of fossil fuel.”

“It sees no contradiction between the two,” Mr. Elgendy said.

The countries of the Persian Gulf have long sought to reconcile the need to tackle climate change with a desire to keep pumping oil.

Recently, Gulf officials have cited the energy crisis that shook Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as proof that the world still needs fossil fuels. They argue that pulling away too soon from investment in oil and gas would lead to economic disaster.

The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company headquarters. The company produces more than two million barrels of crude oil a day.Credit…Christopher Pike/Reuters

Still, the rationale for Mr. Al Jaber’s appointment has done little to curb growing anger among many activists who fear that the fossil fuel industry has taken the reins of the global response to the climate crisis.

“There is no place for the fossil fuel industry in the global climate negotiations,” said Tracy Carty, a global climate politics expert with Greenpeace International, in a statement.

“This sets a dangerous precedent, risking the credibility of the U.A.E. and the trust that has been placed in them by the U.N.,” she added.

The United Arab Emirates is the second Arab state to host the climate conference. Last year’s summit in Egypt resulted in a landmark decision to establish a fund that would help poor countries cope with climate disasters. But campaigners and even some delegates said the summit had failed to hit its ambitious targets, something they blamed in part on the influence of fossil fuel producers in the negotiating process.

Mr. Al Jaber’s selection has also highlighted long-running tensions in the Gulf region itself, with a dependence on fossil fuel revenue at increasing odds with the area’s own vulnerability to climate change.

The summer months in the United Arab Emirates are already stifling, with thick humidity and temperatures that soar well over 100 degrees. A warming planet could wreak havoc on the country’s booming tourism industry, while also undermining its status as a global business hub.

Yet oil and gas remain an essential component of the government’s budget, underwriting its ability to provide jobs for citizens and invest in its economic diversification plans — including renewable energy projects themselves.

This year’s U.N. climate summit will be held in November, and is viewed as crucial to ensuring the world is on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Reporting contributed by Stanley Reed.

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