Head Of Global Climate Summit Manages To Deny Science In Pro-Science Comment

Sultan Al Jaber, the oil company boss presiding over the COP28 climate conference, has spent the last week defending himself against a rising tide of public outrage, first over how he reportedly tried to use the international talks to strike backdoor oil and gas deals for the United Arab Emirates and most recently that he dismissed the need to urgently phase out planet-warming fossil fuels

Ahead of this year’s summit, which kicked off Nov. 30 in Dubai, Al Jaber claimed that there is “no science” to support the idea that phasing out oil, gas and coal is needed to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the landmark Paris climate agreement, The Guardian reported Sunday.

Al Jaber on Monday attempted to walk back the claim, saying he supports climate science and arguing his comments were taken out of context, but not before scientists condemned them as “farcical” and climate change deniers celebrated.

“I’m not in any way signing up to any discussion that is alarmist,” he said during a Nov. 21 online event in response to questions from Mary Robinson, a former United Nations special envoy for climate change. “I respect the science, and there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5.”

“A phase-down and a phase-out of fossil fuel in my view is inevitable. It is essential,” he later added. “But we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it.”

The exchange, a video of which The Guardian included in its reporting, grew increasingly tense. Robinson noted that the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, of which Al Jaber is the CEO, is planning to ramp up oil production in the coming years, a move she said would hurt the most vulnerable. 

“The science is very acute now,” Robinson said. “We don’t have any time.” 

“You’re asking for a phase-out of fossil fuel,” Al Jaber responded. “Please, help me, show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

Scientists have been quick to fact-check Al Jaber’s comments. In a piece published Monday in The Conversation, Steve Pye, an associate professor of energy systems at University College London, highlighted numerous studies that show phasing out fossil fuels is essential. One of those studies, which he co-authored in 2021, found that approximately 60% of remaining oil and gas reserves, and 90% of coal, must remain in the ground if the world is to have any chance of achieving the 1.5 degree temperature target. 

A report last year from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that “unless there are immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C will be beyond reach.” It called specifically for a “substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use” and “shifting energy investments away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon technologies.” A separate U.N. report last month called for “a near total phase-out of coal” by 2040 and a minimum 75% reduction in oil and gas by 2050 compared to levels used in 2020.

Al Jaber, who has been no stranger to criticism since his appointment to the COP28 presidency, seemingly walked back his previous comments during what The Guardian described as a “hastily arranged” press conference Monday in Dubai. 

“I honestly think there is some confusion out there, and misrepresentation and misinterpretation,” he said. “I have said over and over that the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuel is inevitable. In fact, it is essential. And this transition is, in fact, essential. And it needs to be orderly, fair, just and responsible.”

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber speaks during a press conference at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 4, 2023.
COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber speaks during a press conference at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 4, 2023.

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber speaks during a press conference at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 4, 2023.

Al Jaber stressed he “respects the science in everything I do” and said he’s been “quite surprised at the constant attempt to undermine this message” and the work of the COP28 presidency. 

Without naming The Guardian, Al Jaber said the media had given “maximum coverage” to a statement that was “taken out of context, with misrepresentation and misinterpretation.” The Guardian piece included a full, unedited video of his previous comments.

His November remarks stand in stark contrast to what U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told COP28 attendees on Friday: “The science is clear: The 1.5 C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce, not abate. Phase out, with a clear timeframe.”

Asked Monday about Guterres’ statement, Al Jaber said he agrees with the secretary general.

“He is right,” Al Jaber said. “But guess what, I said it a day before he did. It wasn’t picked up … When I confronted the oil and gas industry, It was not picked up, it was not even mentioned.”

“If someone else says it, it gets picked up and it gets maximum coverage. When I am saying it, when I am confronting and I am driving, it doesn’t even get barely any,” he said. “I said the same thing. Same thing. It was identical. No pickup whatsoever. The [secretary general] gets maximum coverage and then it gets twisted as if there is any kind of conflicting messages.”