A senior United Arab Emirates official says the Gulf nation wants the U.N. climate summit it's hosting later this year to deliver "game-changing results" for international efforts to curb global warming, but doing so will require having the fossil fuel industry at the table.
Environmental campaigners have slammed the presence of oil and gas lobbyists at previous rounds of talks, warning that their interests are opposed to the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions — caused to a large degree by the burning of fossil fuels. Last month scores of U.S. and European lawmakers called for the summit's designated chair, Sultan al-Jaber, to be replaced over his links to the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
The issue complicates already-delicate negotiations ahead of the Nov. 30 - Dec. 12 meeting in Dubai, known as COP28. Preliminary talks starting next week in Bonn, Germany, will show whether the incoming UAE presidency can overcome skepticism among parties and civil society groups about its ability to shepherd almost 200 nations toward a landmark deal.
"Our leadership have been very clear to me and our team and our president that they don't want just another COP that's incremental," said Majid al-Suwaidi, who as director-general of the summit plays a key role in the diplomatic negotiations. "They want a COP that is going to deliver real, big, game-changing results because they see, just like all of us, that we're not on track to achieve the goals of Paris."
Oil and gas at the negotiating table
Governments agreed eight years ago in the French capital to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) — ideally no more than 1.5C (2.7F). With average global temperatures already about 1.2C (2.2F) above pre-industrial levels, experts say the window to meet the more ambitious target is closing fast and even the less stringent goal would be missed if emissions aren't slashed sharply soon.
"We need to have everybody at the table discussing with us about how to deliver that," al-Suwaidi told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
"We need to have oil and gas, we need to have industry, we need to have aviation, we need to have shipping, we need to have all the hard to abate sectors," he said, adding, "We need all those who can to deliver what they can, regardless of who they are."
Al-Suwaidi pushed back against the idea that the fossil fuel industry would undermine meaningful talks on emissions cuts the way they have done in the past through disinformation campaigns and keeping quiet their own knowledge about climate change.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the position of the sector has completely changed and that they are engaging with us in an active conversation," he said.
Asked whether the talks might consider a phaseout of fossil fuels, proposed last year by nations most vulnerable to climate change, al-Suwaidi said the presidency wouldn't preclude such conversations.
"We welcome any kind of discussion," the UAE's former ambassador to Spain said. "But the parties are the ones who will decide what that discussion is and where we land."
So far, the summit's designated chair al-Jaber has emphasized the need to cut emissions, rather than end fossil fuel use itself. It's prompted fears that he might seek loopholes for untested carbon-capture technologies and so-called offsets — both aimed at reducing current levels of carbon dioxide in the air — that experts say distract from the need to end the release of greenhouse gases.
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year called for a nearly two-thirds cut in carbon emissions by 2035, warning that failure to do so greatly increases the risk of droughts, flooding, sea-level rise and other short- and long-term disasters.
Al-Suwaidi, who also has a background in the oil and gas sector, said the UAE leadership is acutely aware of the existential threat global warming poses — including to their own sun-rich but water-poor nation — and is committed to shifting from fossil fuels toward renewable energy such as wind and solar.
"We want to be part of this new economy," he said. "We're a country that's running headfirst into this future."
Al-Suwaidi said agreeing to a global goal for ramping up renewable energy in Dubai could send a positive message to those anxious about the transformation required to stop climate change.
"Rather than talking about what we're stopping people from doing, let's talk about how we're helping them to take up solutions ... that are going to help us to address the emissions problem we have," he said.
The talks in Dubai will also see countries conduct the first 'global stock take' of efforts to tackle climate change since Paris in 2015. The results are meant to inform a new round of commitments by nations to cut emissions and address the impacts of global warming.
Poor nations are also demanding rich countries make good on pledges for vast financial support, an issue that has often caused major disagreements at past meetings.
"We need the developing world to leapfrog into this new climate system and we need to support that transition for them," said al-Suwaidi. "Finance is going to be really fundamental at COP28."
This will require rich countries, including the Group of Seven major economies, who are historically responsible for a large chunk of global emissions, to step up, he said.