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Sultan Al Jaber made the comments during an exchange online with former President Mary Robinson Alamy Stock Photo

COP28 president defends position on science of phasing out fossil fuels

COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber is under heat for comments he made about the justifications for cutting fossil fuels.

LAST UPDATE | 4 Dec 2023

THE UAE’S COP28 president has defended himself after being criticised for comments he made suggesting there is no science to show that phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to achieve the world’s climate goals.

COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber is the UAE’s Industry Minister and special envoy for climate change, and also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

A video published by The Guardian shows him saying ahead of the conference: ”I am factual and I respect the science, and there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuels is what’s going to achieve 1.5.”

The comments during an exchange with former President of Ireland Mary Robinson at the SHE Changes Climate online conference on 21 November.

“1.5 is my North Star and a phase-down and a phase-out of fossil fuels in my mind is inevitable, it’s essential but we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it,” he said. “Show me a roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuels that will allow for sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.” 

The 2015 Paris Agreement set the target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic impacts — though an assessment known as the Global Stocktake, which is coming to a head at this COP, indicates that the world is well of track to hit this target.

At a press conference this afternoon, Dr Al Jaber defended his position, saying he was shocked by what he described as efforts to “undermine” the UAE’s presidency of COP.

He asserted that the UAE’s presidency of the conference was built “every step of the way on the science, on the facts, and on the figures”.

He also said that he has a “great deal of respect” for Mary Robinson.

Also at the press conference was Professor Jim Skea, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body that produces important reports about the latest available climate science. 

Citing the IPCC’s work, he said: “Looking at scenarios in which warming is limited to 1.5 degrees with no or little overshoot by 2050, fossil fuel use is greatly reduced and unabated coal is completely phased out. These are the words that we used.”

“I might say that I have had a small number of one-to-one conversations with Dr Sultan on the topic has exclusively been on the science, but I can say that that Dr Sultan has been attentive to the science as we have discussed it, and I think has understood it.”

The IPCC’s reports have said that if global average temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees, the world “faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards” in the next 20 years.

Exceeding a 1.5 degree rise, even temporarily, would lead to “additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible”.  

Climate justice campaigners at COP28 are strongly arguing for a full phaseout of fossil fuels, both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the sake of temperature rise but also because because of other negative impacts of fossil fuels, like air pollution.

There’s a strong feeling of disappointment among campaigners at COP around political pushback to calls for a full, urgent phaseout. 

Speaking to Irish reporters at COP28 this afternoon, Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan was asked about his response to the remarks.

He said he agrees with Al Jaber’s comments about cutting fossil fuels being “inevitable”.

“I think it’s how we plan it, how we organise it, how we deliver it quickly, and how we divert the financing to the alternative,” Ryan said.

“One of the reasons I came up with a proposal around a switch from investing in fossil to clean was actually that I attended a meeting of the International Energy Agency in Nairobi with Dr Sultan Al Jaber and with a number of African climate and energy ministers and it was clear that while they had a four and a half billion euro fund to invest in clean energy, the ability to use it wasn’t there.

“The regulatory risks, the currency risk, all of those issues, so that was one of the inspirations for the proposal we’ve come up with to oblige and direct fossil finance into clean.

“I think we can and need to plan the phasedown and out of fossil fuels and we start with the financing system.”

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