COP28: A controversial presidency and dubious proposals on carbon capturing

The host of COP28 has been accused of manoeuvring to close fossil fuel trade deals taking advantage of the presidency of the summit. His advocacy of carbon capture solutions also raises concerns.

Do Better Team

As host of COP28, the United Arab Emirates faces some uncomfortable discussions. In 2022, the UAE produced over four million barrels of oil every day. And reports leaked shortly before the summit revealed that the head of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and COP28 president Dr Sultan Al Jaber intended to use the climate conference as an opportunity to secure new deals for its biggest export. 

Conflict of interest 

“This is the 'Volkswagen 2015' moment for the #COP28 Presidency,” former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres wrote on the social network X, referring to the auto manufacturer’s manipulation of diesel engine emissions tests. 

“Caught red-handed, the COP Presidency has no other option but to now unequivocally step up the transparency, responsibility and accountability with which they lead the process,” she added. 

Figueres has been openly critical of the UAE’s role in COP28, calling it “very dangerous” and “a direct threat to the survival of vulnerable nations”. She has been particularly disparaging of Al Jaber’s commitment to increasing the use of carbon capture and storage technology and the conflict of interest with his presidential role. 

“He is trying to say: ‘Look, those of us who are producers of fossil fuels will be responsible for our emissions through enhanced carbon capture and storage,” she remarked. “And we, or the COP presidency, will also support the zero carbon alternatives.” 

A united approach 

Àngel Castiñeira, director of the Esade Center for LeadershipS and Sustainability, agrees. “The appointment of the COP28 president and venue has been a highly controversial issue,” he says.  

“For the president of COP28 to be CEO of one of the world's largest oil companies, and one that continues to invest heavily in fossil fuel production, raises a potential conflict of interest and portends that the goal of phasing out fossil fuels will not be achieved.” 

For the president of COP28 to be CEO of one of the largest oil companies raises a potential conflict of interest

But, Castiñeira notes, “Al Jaber, for his part, has presented himself as a figure who can keep fossil fuel companies at the negotiating table for a phasing out of oil and gas use.” 

It’s a point Dr Al Jabar was keen to stress during his speech at the opening session of Pre-COP in October. “There are too many things out there dividing our castworld at this moment," he told the delegation in Abu Dhabi.  

“Now more than ever we need to unite on climate and deliver a clear message of hope, solidary, stability and prosperity. We need to show that the international community can deliver and send a clear signal that keeps 1.5 within reach."  

America’s domestic approach 

While all eyes are on Dubai, the spotlight has faded on some of the other major players in the international fossil fuel community. 

One figure notably absent from the COP event is the US president Joe Biden. Despite the US both producing and consuming significantly more oil than any other country (around 20 million barrels every day), neither the president nor vice president was set to attend the summit.  

Instead, the US Department of State said it would stage a series of US events and initiatives that “focus on how US leadership is providing solutions and working with partners through a whole-of-society approach to address the climate crisis.” 

The UAE and US may be united in their support of carbon capture technologies, but their use remains controversial

One of the areas attracting the focus – and funding – of the US government is the use of the carbon capture technologies criticized by Christiana Figueres. 

The US Energy Department has invested $2.5 billion to help accelerate the demonstration and deployment of carbon management technologies in a program that aims to improve “the efficiency, effectiveness, cost, and environmental performance of carbon capture technologies for power, industrial, and other commercial applications.” 

COP28’s big flop? 

The UAE and US may be united in their support of carbon capture technologies — ADNOC says it’s a pioneer in the technology and pledges to capture 10 million tonnes of carbon annually by 2030 — but their use remains controversial.  

The solutions that clean up emissions by capturing CO2 and using it to produce synthetic fuels, chemicals and building aggregates have attracted widespread investment and the backing of Bill Gates. But Figueres and other critics have questioned the efficacy of the technology. International NGO Global Witness called it COP28’s ‘Trojan Horse’ – quite simply, they say, because it doesn’t work. 

“Over 80% of projects that have been proposed globally have flopped, and currently carbon capture technologies are mainly used to extract more oil,” the organization wrote in a November blog post. 

“The technology is absorbing huge investments that could be better put elsewhere, while yielding minimal carbon benefits. In some cases, it’s making emissions worse, not better.” 

Shaping humanity 

Whether COP28 will laud carbon capture as saving the planet from climate disaster or dismiss it as an industry gimmick remains to be seen. But each summit shines an increasingly bright spotlight on the urgent need for action. 

“The most confrontational aspect of COP28 will be the reduction strategy for all fossil fuels, taking into account supply and demand side and energy security aspects,” says Àngel Castiñeira.  

The geopolitical context of the summit will not favor the climate of major agreements. But what is or is not decided will shape the future of humanity for decades to come.” 

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