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COP28: Outrage at summit head's comments on fossil fuels is misplaced - and could be counterproductive

There was outrage and frustration at COP28 and beyond, when it emerged the man running the climate summit had said there is "no science" behind demands for a "phase out" of fossil fuels.

And taken at face value - the outrage is justified.

There is clear, global scientific consensus that unless carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere are cut by nearly half in the next few years - and reach zero by 2050 - we will exceed the danger level of 1.5 degrees of warming by mid-century.

But the anger, in my view, is misplaced (hear me out) and potentially counterproductive.

First "no science" isn't all that Dr Sultan al Jaber said on the issue. The president of COP28 (and CEO of Abu Dhabi's national oil company), qualified his statement saying that keeping global warming below 1.5C was his sole objective at COP28 and that fossil fuel phase-out was "inevitable".

His argument - and it is a tenuous one - is that under scenarios presented by independent bodies like the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the IEA (International Energy Agency), there is still the possibility some fossil fuel could be used after the world gets to net zero.

The only way that view can be justified is if there is radical reductions in fossil fuels and the emissions of what little remain are buried underground.

The carbon capture and storage technologies needed to do that, at the scale required, currently don't exist. So it's a fairly naive argument.

So why make it?

Well, it could simply be a continuation of the slippery, denialist and often downright deceptive language that oil states and fossil fuel companies have used for years to prevent progress at climate summits.

It's one of the reasons why COP1 didn't solve the climate crisis and 28 years - and a degree's worth of warming - later we're still talking about cutting carbon emissions. And carbon emissions are still going up.

But the other reason is that it's equally naive to ignore the reality of where the negotiations around climate change currently stand.

An immovable block of fossil fuel economies have resisted every attempt to get a global commitment to phasing out fossil fuels for decades: Saudi Arabia, India, Iran, Canada, even the US is still squeamish about it. Many of them will likely do the same at this summit.

Remember too, 80% of the world's primary energy demand is currently provided by the fossil fuels they control.

And Dr Sultan may offer the key to unlocking that obstacle.

Read more:
Who is Sultan al Jaber, and can an oil boss run a climate conference?
Pledge to triple renewable power like 'mission impossible'

The UAE is one of the world's largest oil producers. It has also invested impressive amounts of its oil wealth in renewable energy. Right now, it spends significantly more on oil exploration than clean energy. But its message is one of diverting its economy rapidly away from oil.

And because it is allied with other petrostates it might - even by tiny degrees - be able to shift their position towards consensus at a climate summit like COP28.

Given the speed at which many countries are deploying renewables - and the undeniable impacts of climate change - even the most die-hard of fossil fuel economies know the world is losing its taste for their product.

If Dr Sultan's stated aim of "keeping 1.5 alive" is just a ruse to allow his country and other fossil fuel states to continue as normal - nothing much has changed.

Every year COP has ended with much ambition from a coalition of the willing (read: countries rich enough to afford alternatives to fossil fuels) versus those who have obfuscated so they can keep pumping oil until the world burns.

But even if the COP president only half means what he says - there is hope for a different type of progress at this summit and one we have been needing for a long time.