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1 December 2023updated 07 Dec 2023 7:34pm

Dubai’s Cop28 has got off to a surreal start

Oil sheikhs and Kings have gathered in the desert heat of a Gulf petrostate to hammer out an agreement on fossil fuels.

By Nick Ferris and Polly Bindman

DUBAI – Pulling up to the Expo 2020 Dubai – the venue for the latest UN climate conference – feels a bit like arriving at an alien spaceport. A vast, spherical beige orb emerges from the desert, surrounded by a mass of strange multi-coloured pavilions that were built for the 2020 World Expo. The 438-hectare site, which cost $7bn and some 240 million hours of labour, is a world away from the stuffy Hydro Arena in Glasgow, the venue for the last UN climate conference (Cop26), which we attended in 2021. 

December is supposedly the coolest month of the year here, but the beating sun still caused evident discomfort among thousands of delegates as they spent long hours queuing for accreditation in the desert heat. 

For most countries, the very existence of a $7bn mega-venue like Expo 2020 would be a source of outrage in the press, particularly when hosting an event whose purpose is to advocate sustainability and restraint. But not in the UAE: the authoritarian petrostate has been ranked 119th out of 180 countries in the world press freedom index, but it is also flush with the kind of oil money that makes these kinds of expensive vanity projects possible. With inflated energy prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, UAE state revenues increased by a third last year

The country’s status as the world’s seventh largest oil producer arguably makes it a strange choice for a climate conference. Or, depending on which way you look at it, the perfect choice – for all the wrong reasons: according to leaked documents obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting, the Cop28 Presidency was intending to use the summit as an opportunity to secure new oil and gas deals with foreign governments. If this is true (Cop28 President Sultan Al Jaber has vehemently denied the allegations) it would not only flagrantly undermine the scientific consensus that there can be no more drilling for new oil and gas fields if we are to meet our climate targets, but also call into question the entire premise of the conference (that’s to work collaboratively on combating climate change, in case you forgot).

In a speech delivered yesterday afternoon at conference’s opening ceremony, Al Jaber appeared undeterred by the controversy. Rather than skirting around the touchy subject of fossil fuels, he addressed it head on, stating it was “essential that no issue is left off the table… We must look for ways and ensure the inclusion of the role of fossil fuels”. He added that the Presidency has “made the bold choice to proactively engage with oil and gas companies”, of which “many have adopted net zero 2050 targets for the first time”. As head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, he should know (the company is set to spend $150 billion in expanding its oil and gas production in the coming years).

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Clearly one for bold choices, Al Jaber also took the opportunity to flip the script on criticism that a city whose government derives the majority of their revenue from fossil fuels is a suitable location for a global climate conference. A nation that “rose up from the desert through the vision and foresight of our late founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan”, he argued, perfectly “represents the spirit” of Cop28. “We may be a young nation but we have big ambitions and hold fast to principles like collaboration, optimism, true partnership, determination and commitment” – the “ingredients that make up the DNA of the UAE”, he said. 

Despite the controversial backdrop, early signals from the conference are upbeat. On the first day, a new ‘loss and damage’ fund – designed to compensate the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations for climate damages – was created to help them deal with the irreversible impacts of climate disaster. The agreement to create the fund was heralded as the main achievement of Cop27.

Initial contributions to the fund add up to just over $400m, which is a world away from the hundreds of trillions of dollars in climate damages expected in the coming years. But it is a start – and the concept of “loss and damage” finance remained an unthinkable proposition just a few years ago. 

“If the Cop presidency can build on this with a consensus agreement on a just phasing out of fossil fuels, Cop28 will indeed be an historic event,” said Ghiwa Nakat, the executive director of Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa.

Whether such an agreement can be reached on fossil fuels – as well as an improved climate finance proposition, and stronger progress on climate adaptation and renewables – remains an open question.

As ever at these conferences, the next two weeks of negotiation between the 198 countries represented here is likely to be fraught with disagreement and distrust, and will undoubtedly go right down to the wire.

This article was originally published as part of Spotlight’s weekly Green Transition newsletter. Subscribe here.

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