An oil executive is leading the UN climate summit. It’s going as well as you’d expect.

A man wearing a white robe and head scarf with a black headband, sitting at the COP28 speakers’ desk.
UAE Industry and Advanced Technology Minister and President of COP28, Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber, has faced backlash for recent comments. | Nuran Erkul Kaya/Anadolu/Getty Images

The head of COP28 is facing widespread backlash for his comments on fossil fuels.

As the United Nations’ annual climate summit COP28 continues, controversial comments by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the head of the conference, are roiling the event and raising questions about how substantive any new fossil fuel agreement emerging from the gathering will be.

In a meeting one week before the conference, Jaber — who is the United Arab Emirates minister of industry and advanced technology as well as the chairman of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company — told a panel he believed there was no science to suggest eliminating fossil fuels would help keep global temperature increases below the key threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C,” Jaber said during a late November climate panel hosted by the climate nonprofit She Changes Climate as first reported by the Guardian. Additionally, he seemed to push back against a fossil fuel phase-out entirely: “​​Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.” (He did later call a phase-out “inevitable” and “essential.”)

As Vox’s Umair Irfan has explained, a vast majority of countries previously agreed to try to limit the average global temperature to 1.5°C more than what the average Earth temperature was prior to the Industrial Revolution. The idea is that limiting the increase to 1.5°C is the most realistic strategy for minimizing extreme weather events and other climate catastrophes. Because of the number’s international importance, Jaber’s critics took his statement as undermining research regarding the causes of climate change, and as a threat to COP’s goals.

Climate scientists have emphasized that Jaber’s statements are inaccurate, with some noting that they’re reminiscent of arguments the fossil fuel industry is known for making. According to the 2023 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions — which are heavily caused by the usage of fossil fuels — would need to be slashed to almost half by 2030 to keep the temperature increase below 1.5°C. Scientists have also worried that it’s too late to even limit the temperature increase to that level and that the goal is no longer tenable. As Irfan noted, for example, 2023 might be the first year the world’s average temperatures rise above the 1.5°C mark.

“Al Jaber’s comments are absurd and troubling, betraying both an ignorance about the science and a dismissiveness about the need for rapid decarbonization, which is at the very center of the proceedings over which he is in principle presiding as COP28 president,” University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann told Vox.

Jaber’s comments also directly conflict with statements made by many world leaders, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said on Friday: “The science is clear: The 1.5C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce, not abate. Phase out, with a clear timeframe.”

Jaber has since responded to the blowback, claiming that he is focused on ensuring that “everything we do is centered around the science” and that there has been a “misrepresentation” of his statements. In remarks on Monday, Jaber reiterated that he believes “the phase-out and phase-down of fossil fuel is inevitable,” comments he previously made during the She Changes panel as well.

His remarks during the panel have served only to deepen existing scrutiny of Jaber’s leadership of COP given his role as the head of a national oil and gas company and reports that he was capitalizing on this position to advance the UAE’s business interests. (He has denied these allegations.)

His statements also come as participants at the annual climate talks address a heated debate about the future of fossil fuels and weigh an agreement that could significantly curb or eliminate their usage down the line. As CNBC reports, many climate experts believe that this year’s COP won’t be considered a success unless attendees reach a deal about phasing out the usage of fossil fuels, a decision some countries have balked at. Attendees pushing for a weaker option are urging a “phase-down,” which would reduce rather than eliminate fossil fuel usage.

Jaber’s previous remarks fuel uncertainty around how aggressive countries will be in any COP agreements pushing to wind down fossil fuel usage.

Jaber’s fossil fuel comments come amid a big debate

As multiple climate experts have emphasized, the scientific evidence directly conflicts with Jaber’s remarks. As NPR’s Rebecca Hersher writes, scientific studies have found that there need to be drastic cuts in fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions to limit global temperature increases. Hersher explains: “In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, carbon dioxide emissions would need to decrease 80% by 2040 and 99% by 2050, compared to levels in 2019, according to the most comprehensive global scientific consensus report on climate change.”

Fossil fuel production would need to be slashed drastically — if not eliminated — starting immediately to meet those targets; 2040 is just over 16 years away. That’s why climate experts and activists want to see global leaders emerge from this year’s COP with an aggressive but workable plan to quickly phase out fossil fuels. As summit members discuss next steps for reducing fossil fuel usage, there are key disagreements over the approach that could be used, which could have a measurable impact on any efforts to stay within 1.5°C.

The debate over a “phase-out” or a “phase-down” is one key point of contention. Climate scientists have advocated heavily for the former as a means of rapidly curbing emissions from oil and gas, while Jaber and members of the fossil fuel industry have kept the door open to the latter. A phase-down would reduce fossil fuel usage over time and be more gradual.

“The outcome of COP28 must be that all the oil, gas, and coal nations of the world see that now we are truly at the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era for the world economy. And that we are now starting to bend the curve, properly,” Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told CNBC.

Jaber’s remarks raise questions about how strong the fossil fuels agreement coming out of the summit will be and where exactly he stands on the issue given his remarks at the She Changes Climate event, which seemed critical of a phase-out. “I have said over and over that the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuel is inevitable. In fact, it is essential … it needs to be orderly, fair, just, and responsible,” Jaber said at his Monday press conference.

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