Should fossil fuels have a seat at the proverbial COP28 table?

By Ciara Chauvineau

With COP28 taking place in less than a month in the UAE, the involvement of fossil fuel lobbyists is now unavoidable. The selection of the UAE, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers, as hosts was a controversial one to begin with, sharpened even further by the appointment to the COP28 presidency of the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). While this will not be the first COP at which the fossil fuel lobby is represented – with 636 lobbyists from the oil and gas industries registered at COP27, which outnumbered the delegation of any one country, it begs the question of whether they have a right to be there.  

It is no secret that the most effective way to halt the extreme effects of climate change is by phasing out fossil fuels completely and achieving net zero by 2050. However, as leaders, officials, and negotiators from more than 200 nations prepare for COP28, how much influence will the fossil fuel lobbyists have over this outcome? 

It was not always this way; COP26, held in Glasgow, effectively banned big oil and gas firms from sponsoring events. This year, the UN will require fossil fuel lobbyists to identify themselves when they register for the summit. While this move has been heralded for its transparency and accountability, it leaves open the question of whether the industry is a legitimate stakeholder?  

Can the problem be part of the solution?

Many leading voices have expressed the view that oil and gas should be completely excluded from the table. Al Gore, for example, has argued that the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber is one of the reasons why COP28 has the deck stacked against it for a successful outcome. 

Other climate leaders cite their experiences working with oil and gas companies in the past as justification for their exclusion today. For example, Christiana Figueres, who served on the board of the UNFCCC between 2010 and 2016, had for years argued that oil and gas companies had a right to a seat at the table but has quoted their lobbying against climate regulation and rolling back of their climate pledges as examples of why they are simply obstructors and should therefore, be banned. Similarly, Tzeporah Berman, chair and founder of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, has concluded that “the fossil fuel industry is obscuring the truth and slowing down progress.” Oil and gas, so the argument goes, have had their chance and have proven themselves to be untrustworthy partners in a transition away from fossil fuels, an outcome which is not logically in their interest.  

Embracing the counterintuitive

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of whether or not fossil fuels should be allowed at the table, the decision has been made for us, with the designation of Sultan al-Jaber. He is simultaneously the founding president of Masdar, a renewable energy company. While Masdar churns out solar projects and big plans for renewables, ADNOC has announced global expansion in direct opposition to the phase-out of fossil fuels.  

Meanwhile, Mike Wirth, the chief executive of Chevron, has predicted demand for oil will “continue to grow to 2030 and beyond.” Like it or not, we should acknowledge that Wirth might be right. We cannot understate the importance of oil and gas in the world, nor can we overlook the resources and expertise that the industry holds.  

It is therefore vital that this year’s COP keeps the spotlight on fossil fuel lobbyists and holds decision makers to account for their actions in the interests of the planet and its vulnerable people, and not to maintain the status quo on behalf of a controversial industry.  

To abate or not to abate

One of the most important outcomes that we can hope will emerge at COP28 will be the legal wording of any agreement as to the further “phase-down of unabated fossil fuels,” following the agreements reached at COP26 and 27. Subsequently, it will be essential that oil and gas companies produce actionable targets in line with the legal wording of this hoped-for agreement.   

The IPCC have defined ‘unabated’ as “fossil fuels produced and used without interventions that substantially reduce the amount of GHG emitted throughout the life cycle”. In short, any emission producing fossil fuels that cannot be offset with removals must be phased out. 

The trouble is the lack of reliable, affordable, scientifically robust technologies for emissions abatement. There has been great excitement about carbon capture and storage (CCS), which could be a game-changing tool for abating emissions, if scaled up and used properly. However, as Steven Feit, senior attorney at the nonprofit Centre for International Environmental Law, stated: “the history of carbon capture is one of over-promising and under-delivering.” Moreover, oil and gas companies must be onboard with CCS and must invest in it. But when news emerges that ADNOC and Occidental signed an agreement to explore investment in CCS in the US and UAE, we cannot forget that Occidental sold a CCS plant last year largely because it was too costly to operate. Regardless of any positive intentions, how can we have confidence in still-unproven end-of-pipe solutions, which are still more costly than energy efficiency and scaled-up renewables? 

Realistically, the final agreement will mention the ‘phase-out of unabated fossil fuels’. If any section of this is softened, then this will be considered a failure for climate activists. We must commit to a phase-out, not a phase-down. We must include all fossil fuels, not just coal. If we must caveat this to only phase-out unabated fossil fuels, then we must have specific, effective, ambitious, and tangible targets to remove remaining emissions.  

Overall, it seems to be a tumultuous start to what will undoubtably be a COP for the ages. We can only hope that the voices of those who truly want positive progress in the fight against climate change will prevail.