The global economy doesn’t need to ditch fossil fuels to get back on track with the goals of the Paris Agreement, Majid Al-Suwaidi, Director-General of the upcoming COP28 summit in Dubai, said in an interview Monday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.
Al-Suwaidi was a former geologist for the state-owned oil company ADNOC and a longtime lead climate negotiator for the United Arab Emirates, and helped draft the Paris Agreement in 2015. In the years since, he said, countries and companies have faltered in meeting its objectives, in large part because finance is not moving quickly enough, or at sufficient scale, into clean energy and climate adaptation. “We’re rapidly losing confidence in the process,” he said. But he maintains that limiting global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels is still possible.
The Emirati leadership of COP28 — Al-Suwaidi and summit President Sultan Al-Jaber, who directs ADNOC — are trying to pull off a difficult balancing act, demonstrating concrete progress on decarbonization without alienating the industry that has enriched the country. They take the reins of global climate diplomacy at a time when the gap between existing policies and the 1.5 C target remains enormous: The U.N.’s first official report card of progress on the Paris goals, published this month, identified an excess of 24 billion tons of CO2 in the projected 2030 global carbon footprint compared to a 1.5 C pathway, equal to about four years of total U.S. emissions.
The UAE will push countries to commit to tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030 and ramp up spending on adaptation, Al-Suwaidi told me. But far more contentious at COP28 will be the role of fossil fuels. The EU and other delegations plan to push for an agreement to phase out fossil fuel use by 2050, but the UAE and many other countries may only be willing to accept that with an exemption for “abated” fossil fuels — projects equipped with carbon capture technology. Al-Suwaidi repeated that argument, saying that the focus should be on emissions reduction, not on targeting specific industries.
Tim: What seems to be going wrong with the Paris process?
Majid: We know from the recent global stocktake that we’re not achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. It’s difficult to say Paris was successful if it isn’t achieving the goals that it set out — namely, keeping the global temperature increase under 1.5 C, and delivering the finance that we need to adapt to a changing climate.
But I’m really excited about our COP. Before Paris, the conversation was still about whether we need to do anything. We’ve now gone from trying to get a political outcome to needing to see action happening on the ground. To me it’s a much healthier conversation, but it’s complex.
We’ve been on a kind of global listening tour, speaking to civil society, to NGOs, to Indigenous people, to governments, to businesses, and industry. We haven’t left a stone unturned in our pursuit of how to address the challenges, and we’ve come back with four focus areas.
The first one is on fast-tracking the energy transition, and changing the conversation to be about what we’re giving people rather than what we’re taking away. The second focus area is fixing finance. Consistently as we’ve gone around the world, we’ve heard from everyone that the problem is that finance isn’t available. We hope here at UNGA there’ll be another moment where countries will say how they’re going to address that. We need to move from hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars of investment.
The third focus area is putting people at the heart of COP, about lives and livelihoods. This is about food, health, adaptation, loss, and damage. This is how we make COPs relevant to the average man and woman or young person, child or indigenous person on the ground, and make a difference in their lives. The last focus area is to have a COP that is as fully inclusive as possible. We need to have activists who bring passion and excitement, the young people and the Indigenous people. But we also need industry, we need governments, we need civil society, we need academics, we need everybody coming with their solutions.
The UNGA is a real critical moment. This is where we need those signals to say that at COP28 we are going to deliver big results.
Tim: What’s the role you see for fossil fuels in this process?
Majid: The UAE is an oil and gas-producing country, we built our country off of that. But many people don’t know we had a zero flaring policy [to reduce methane emissions from natural gas wells] since 1978. We have an energy mix today that is largely natural gas, where most people are trying to transition to natural gas, and we’re transitioning to nuclear, wind, and solar. Our economy is 70% non-oil and gas today, and our leadership has been clear that we want to celebrate the last barrel of oil that we produce. We’ve called for a tripling of renewable energy, a doubling of hydrogen, doubling of energy efficiency, and greater investment in these areas.
But fundamentally the Paris Agreement is about global temperatures, so let’s focus on that. That’s why we’ve set a challenge to the oil and gas industry to step up and show us clearly how you’re going to be part of the solution. If [carbon capture] is a solution that works for a particular circumstance or situation, then we should celebrate and support that. If we address the emissions, we address the problem.
Tim: Do you think 1.5 is really possible?
Majid: We follow the science and the science says it’s possible. But we have just the next seven years to get back on track to achieve that goal. If we can’t achieve our interim goals for 2030, then we start to lose confidence in 2050 and beyond.
Tim: There was an open letter published last week from a group of 200 human rights and environmental organizations that raised concerns about human rights abuses within UAE, and the ability of the country to be a credible defender of inclusivity at COP when it has these issues at home. What’s your response to that?
Majid: Everybody is welcome to come to COP to help us solve this problem. We are working day and night to ensure it will be equitable. The COP presidencies are used to all sorts of criticisms. We are very proud of the UAE, and very progressive on womens’ rights and on many other issues. We hope that people will come to COP and see the UAE for themselves, see our track record on sustainable development. There’s a lot of things that people just assume about the UAE without actually coming and visiting, and we hope this is a real opportunity for people to come and engage in the conversation.
Room for Disagreement
The Emerati position on carbon capture doesn’t hold water for many economists and climate scientists, who say that although carbon capture is necessary for some industries, the technology hasn’t been proven enough at scale to justify long-term reliance on oil and gas. And critics argue that language promoted by the UAE and other fossil-fuel extracting countries and companies to focus on temperature increase distracts from the core issue: cutting oil and gas use.
- The Emirati state oil company ADNOC is making massive investments in new oil and gas production in Central Asia, overshadowing smaller investments by the renewable energy company Masdar. ADNOC will keep producing oil and gas, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber told The New York Times, “as long as the market demands it.”