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UAE names oil chief to head COP28 climate talks

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber's appointment as the president of COP28 has drawn criticism from environmental activists
— Dubai (AFP)

The head of the United Arab Emirates' national oil company was named Thursday as president of this year's COP28 climate talks, prompting fierce criticism from environmental activists.

Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive of the UAE's Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), will be the first CEO to take the role at the UN summit, the official WAM news agency reported.

"I sincerely believe that climate action today is an immense economic opportunity for investment in sustainable growth," he was quoted as saying, promising a "pragmatic" approach.

Al Jaber, the UAE's minister of industry, is also the Gulf state's special envoy for climate change and has taken part in more than 10 COP meetings.

He is CEO of Masdar, the UAE's renewable energy company, and has "played a key role in shaping the country's clean energy path", the statement said.

US climate envoy John Kerry congratulated Al Jaber and called the UAE "a crucial partner" in the climate crisis.

"The path ahead will not be easy, but I am optimistic at the outset of 2023 that we can collectively rise to meet the challenge of the climate crisis," Kerry said.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN chief Antonio Guterres, said the choice of president was a matter for the UAE, adding: "The science is extremely clear."

"The Secretary General reaffirms that there is no way to avoid such a climate catastrophe without ending our addiction to fossil fuels," he said.

COP27, held in Egypt in November, concluded with the adoption of a hotly contested text on aid to poor countries affected by climate change, but failed to set new ambitions for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

The UAE, a leading crude producer and one of the world's biggest polluters per capita, will host the next edition in Dubai in November and December. It had the largest contingent of oil and gas lobbyists at last year's talks.

- 'Fox in charge of the henhouse' -

The UAE, one of the world's biggest crude producers, argues that oil remains indispensable to the global economy and is pushing the merits of carbon capture -- removing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, when fuel is burned or from the air

Activists were quick to criticise Al Jaber's appointment.

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said it "poses an outrageous conflict of interest".

Teresa Anderson, global lead on climate justice at campaign group ActionAid, said: "This appointment goes beyond putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."

And Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of international affairs at Tufts University in the United States, warned that the UAE is "competing to be the most efficient and lowest-cost source of fossil fuels as global production must diminish through the energy transition".

"It will be challenging as COP president to unite countries around more aggressive action, while at the same time suggesting that other producers stop producing because UAE has you covered," she added.

"We don't have the planetary space for mixed messages."

The Gulf monarchy argues that oil remains indispensable to the global economy and is pushing the merits of carbon capture -- removing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, as fuel is burned or from the air.

It is one of the countries at the sharp end of climate change, as it lies in one of the world's hottest regions, with summer temperatures nudging 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

2022, fifth warmest year since 1850

According to a study published in 2021, parts of the Gulf could become too hot for human habitation by the end of this century.

The UAE has announced ambitious environmental initiatives, including plans for 20 gigawatts of installed solar capacity by 2030 and a fully operational nuclear power station by 2024.

It is aiming to develop enough renewable energy for half of its needs by 2050, when it is targeting domestic carbon neutrality -- which excludes emissions from exported oil.

The Gulf state also forecasts that the oil and gas industry would need to invest more than $600 billion every year until 2030 to keep up with expected demand.