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The Cop28 president told a shocking lie about fossil fuels – and he’s wrong about climate economics too

<span>Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA</span>
Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

For months Sultan Al Jaber, the president of the Cop28 climate negotiations in Dubai, has been insisting that there is no conflict with his day job, chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) state oil company.

Instead, he argued, the dual role enabled him to persuade fossil fuel companies to change. And some early successes in the talks provided some credibility to that claim.

Now it lies in ruins, following Sunday’s exclusive Guardian report of rejoinders he made to Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN special climate envoy, during a live event on 21 November.

He claimed there was “no science” showing that phasing out fossil fuels would keep the world beneath the internationally agreed guardrail of a rise of 1.5C above preindustrial levels – beyond which lurk 11 irreversible tipping points that threaten to plunge the world into a much more hostile climate. Indeed, he implied, such a phase-out could “take the world back into caves”.

No sooner had Al Jaber’s remarks become public than the scientific community descended on him, with top experts citing the overwhelming mass of hard evidence establishing the vital need to quit coal, gas and oil.

They pointed out, for example, that the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – drawn up by the world’s scientists and endorsed by its governments – showed that warming could not otherwise be kept to 1.5C.

Al Jaber has said his words about climate science were “misinterpreted”. Meanwhile, his other assertion, about human civilisation devolving back to caves, received much less attention. But it is even more pernicious.

Opponents of action on climate change have almost entirely stopped denying the science in the face of conclusive evidence (making Al Jaber’s claim against it all the more extraordinary). Instead they are focusing on claiming that the level of intervention needed would be economically ruinous.

They have made headway on this. The far-right parties advancing throughout the west have taken up the theme, and it appears to have influenced Rishi Sunak’s decision to delay net zero targets. In this new political atmosphere, fossil fuel companies are stepping up their drilling, while barely investing in renewables.

Al Jaber’s “back into caves” jibe will give them comfort. But it could not be more wrong. Far from harming growth, economists, businesses and governments increasingly recognise that green measures offer the best hope of achieving it.

Study after study has revealed the immense potential. One, by Deloitte for the World Economic Forum, concluded that a transition to net zero could benefit the world economy by $43 trillion over the next five decades.

A commission of some of the world’s top businesspeople and financiers decided that similar measures could create 380 million jobs. And a report by top European institutes calculated that it could lift 3-4 billion people out of poverty.

Nor is this just theory. Britain has reduced carbon emissions by 44% since 1990, while growing by 78%. Its green economy, yet another study concluded, is already nearly four times bigger than manufacturing, providing more than 1.2 million jobs.

Finland now gets 95% of its power from “non-carbon” sources and, per capita, remains wealthier than France, Italy or the UK. The US has embarked on a massive, $369bn drive towards a green economy. The EU is following suit. Sunak’s government remains an outlier, but other top Conservatives have got the point.

Theresa May has repeatedly called net zero “the growth opportunity of the century”, while William Hague says it is “the main chance we will ever have to raise the levels of investment and productivity in the British economy”.

Of course there would be a disastrous crash if the world were to stop burning oil and gas overnight, but nobody sane suggests that. The demand – including from the International Energy Agency, partially established to promote fossil fuels – is to stop opening new fields.

It is true, however, that – vital as a phase-out is – we have left things so late that it would not be enough to avoid breaching 1.5C in the next decades. Even an aggressive cutback, studies show, would only save about 0.1C by 2050, partly because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a long time.

Fortunately, slashing short-lived climate pollutants – especially methane, a warming agent 20 times more powerful than CO2 – gets rapid results. The UN says that already available, inexpensive measures to reduce emissions could halve the rate of warming, saving 0.3C by as early as 2045, thus buying time to phase out fossil fuels.

These “non-CO2” pollutants have been scandalously neglected by the Cop process, until now. Last week a “methane summit” was called by the US, China and the UAE.

Al Jaber deserves some credit for that. But now he must be held accountable, on pain of resignation, for withdrawing his reckless remarks – and for delivering a phase-out decision in Dubai.

  • Geoffrey Lean is a specialist environment correspondent and author

  • Cop28: Can fossil fuel companies transition to clean energy?
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