28th May 2023


The truth on Big Oil's stranglehold on COP summits

  • The traditional defence of fossil fuels is that 'the show must go on because what would happen if it didn't?'. The counter-factual is now 'What will happen if the show continues? (Photo: Tim Dennell)
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The most shocking thing about the EU's defence for letting an oil baron steward the next UN climate summit is that it shocked anyone. The move followed a time-honoured UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) tradition of feting VIP polluters even as global emissions soar to new records.

The 30-odd year history of COP summits has coincided with the accumulation of more than half of all atmospheric greenhouse gases emitted since 1751. In almost every year of its existence, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) has overseen a new emissions record — and 2023 looks like it will be no different.

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  • COP26 in Glasgow: some 636 fossil-fuel lobbyists received delegate passes to the following COP in Sharm el-Sheikh — more than were given to the ten nations most impacted by global heating (Photo: Daniel/Flickr)

Yet these COPs still allow the worst polluters and their government enablers to bask under a green spotlight, radiating a false impression of progress and climate action. Some 636 fossil-fuel lobbyists received delegate passes to the last COP in Sharm el-Sheikh — more than were given to the ten nations most impacted by global heating.

Fossil-fuel firms had links with 90 percent of the sponsors at COP27, a summit publicised by Hill and Knowlton, which also spins for ExxonMobil, Shell and other fossil firms.

In this context, the appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of the UAE's Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) to lead proceedings at COP28, is about as shocking as a lobbyist's bar tab.

Fossil-fuel companies have long set the pace, scale and nature of the climate action that governments and regulatory authorities have felt able to take, especially in Brussels.

Shell successfully proposed the EU's headline climate target in 2014, while BP won a tug of war with the EU over laws to regulate power plant pollution and tar sands, after threatening an oil industry "exodus" in 2013. Total, Iberdrola, E.On and Enel even took majority positions in Europe's renewable energy associations, and used them to weaken the wind and solar industry's ambitions for new mandates.

"Credulous" is thus the best way to describe EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmerman's claim that al Jaber's role in the Masdar renewable energy firm balances his fossil fuel interests.

Masdar, which is part-owned by ADNOC, says it hopes to provide 100GW of new clean energy by 2030 but there's nothing new about oil firms hedging on renewables with side investments while they wait to see what regulatory environment their core operations face.

Masdar is targeting production of up to one million tonnes of "green" hydrogen by 2030, in alliances with BP, Engie and others.

But watch to see if this colour changes. ADNOC only declares itself a "leader" in blue hydrogen, carbon capture and "low carbon natural gas" — technologies that reconcile a guaranteed future for fossil fuels with the UAE's pledge to achieve net zero — on paper at least.

Cooking the books, cooking the planet

However, the UAE's emissions cutting efforts are "critically insufficient" according to Climate Action Tracker, a green watchdog, and will not achieve its net zero goal.

The thing with cooking the carbon accounting books is that it might also cook the planet. The International Energy Agency says there can be no new oil or gas fields if the world is to prevent catastrophic climate change yet ADNOC plans to expand both its gas and oil operations.

Why is this tolerated? One senior EU official told me 10 years ago the underlying problem is that fossil fuel firms, acting in concert, would be capable of tanking the global economy — and regulators know it.

In reality, COPs have long followed a model set by the contemporaneous (if now moribund) Oslo peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Faced by a powerful vested interest with no intention of reforming itself, the UNFCCC also fetishised a "process" that sidestepped a key obstacle (CO2 emissions) with interminable discussions that allowed polluters to greenwash themselves while expanding their assets.

The traditional riposte that 'the show must go on because what would happen if it didn't?' increasingly has to face a counter-factual of: 'What will happen if the show continues?. The answer is that we will go on watching as the world hurtles toward climate tipping points, from which there may be no return.

Reform of this terrifying mess will not come from enlightened oil execs.

It is true that the EU isn't best placed to complain about al Jaber, having made a former chair of two oil companies its last climate commissioner but not doing so could turn COP28's "global stock-take" of emissions progress since the Paris climate summit of 2015 into a farce.

Ditto the EU's push for a "phase down" of oil and gas.

The unshocking truth is that Brussels will only act in its (and our) best interests if it is pushed from outside — as evidenced by the Green Deal, which followed student strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests and a green electoral wave. Our collective survival may depend on how far and how fast such pressure can again be brought to bear.

Author bio

Arthur Neslen writes about the environment for the Guardian, Open Democracy, Equal Times and others. He was formerly the Guardian's European environment correspondent.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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