The Scandal Rocking The United Nations Climate Summit

A scandal involving the host country of this year’s United Nations climate summit cast a dark cloud over the annual negotiations days before they kicked off in Dubai.

On Monday, the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC reported on leaked documents obtained from a whistleblower that purportedly show Sultan Al Jaber — the controversial president of the 28th Conference of Parties, or COP28, and the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company — planned to leverage his role as head of the summit to broker oil and gas deals with other countries and boost fossil fuel exports from the United Arab Emirates.

In other words, a powerful oil executive — someone who’d already come under fire for seemingly glaring conflicts of interest in presiding over the summit — apparently saw the climate conference as an opportunity to increase domestic production of planet-warming fossil fuels at a time when scientists are desperately warning that the world is running out of time to stave off catastrophic climate impacts.

While the revelation has rattled the global climate community, it did not happen in a vacuum. Instead, the reported backdoor dealings are the fitting icing on the cake of international climate negotiations that many climate and environmental activists argue have been hijacked by the very industry most responsible for the crisis.

Sultan Al Jaber, the President-Designate of COP28 and the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, speaks during Climate Future Week at the Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in September.

Kamran Jebreili via Associated Press

Rachel Rose Jackson, director of international climate research and policy at watchdog group Corporate Accountability, told HuffPost that “climate action has long been strangled by Big Polluters as well as those that represent their profit-driven interests.”

“This interference is not specific to any one COP or one presidency,” she said in an email. “For as long as the UNFCCC has existed, Big Polluters have been allowed to roam the halls unchecked, even though we know that they will go to great lengths to protect their bottom line ― profit. The impact is clear; we need look no further than the decades-long failure of COPs to curb greenhouse gas emission and keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

As HuffPost reported following COP25 in Spain, fossil fuel interests have long maintained an outsize presence at the talks. Oil, gas and coal companies have been among the biggest sponsors of previous conferences. Industry representatives and lobbyists roam the halls alongside delegates, scientists and environmentalists while industry trade associations host parties and cocktail receptions. An analysis by Corporate Accountability and other groups found that 636 fossil fuel lobbyists registered for last year’s COP in Egypt — up from 503 one year prior.

Oil giants have even boasted about playing a key role in writing portions of the Paris climate agreement, as The Intercept reported in 2018.

Activists blame this industry’s influence and interference for the limited progress world governments have made in curbing emissions. And they’ve pointed out that the dynamic at the U.N. climate talks stands in stark contrast to negotiations of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which tobacco companies and industry lobbyists are prohibited from attending.

“We cannot expect meaningful change until we address the corporate capture of climate action at its source and end the ability of Big Polluters to write the rules of the climate action we so urgently need,” Jackson said.

Demonstrators participated in a "Kick Big Polluters Out” protest at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022.
Demonstrators participated in a “Kick Big Polluters Out” protest at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022.

Peter Dejong via Associated Press

Not only is this year’s climate summit likely to be flush with fossil fuel representatives, but its president, Al Jaber, is the top executive of the UAE’s state-owned oil company — a role he has so far refused to step down from while spearheading the conference.

It is unclear how successful Al Jaber and the UAE have been in leveraging their host role to their own economic advantage. According to briefing documents obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting, the team planned to discuss their business interests with nearly 30 foreign nations, including the U.S. At least one nation followed up, the documents show.

Al Jaber has denied the reporting, calling it “false” and “an attempt to undermine” his work as COP28 president. A COP28 spokesperson downplayed the allegations without disputing them, telling the Centre for Climate Reporting that it “is public knowledge” Al Jaber holds numerous positions other than his role as the summit’s president and that “private meetings are private, and we do not comment on them.”

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which oversees the annual negotiations, did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

The perceived conflicts of interest, already front and center prior to Monday’s bombshell report, have unsurprisingly ballooned. The summit kicks off Thursday in Dubai amid renewed calls for Al Jaber to step aside from either his role as COP28 president or as CEO of ADNOC.

Ann Harrison, climate adviser at Amnesty International, said in a statement that this week’s revelations “only fuel our concerns that COP28 has been comprehensively captured by the fossil fuel lobby to serve its vested interests that put the whole of humanity at risk.”

She said, “The appointment of the chief executive of one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies to lead COP28 was always a brazen conflict of interests which undermines the meeting’s ability to reach the outcome we desperately need.”

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UNFCCC, wrote in a post to X, formerly Twitter, that Al Jaber had been “caught red handed” and called the documents “the ‘Volkswagen 2015’ moment for the #COP28 Presidency,” referring to the automaker’s emissions scandal.

“At this point we might as well meet inside an actual oil refinery,” Joseph Moeono-Kolio, lead adviser to the campaign for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, told The New York Times.

That’s not far from what allegedly played out ahead of the U.N. summit. Whistleblowers told the Centre for Climate Reporting that the team representing the UAE at the talks has repeatedly held meetings at oil giant ADNOC’s headquarters.

“The COP28 Presidency has been consistent in our position that it does not make sense to exclude the people who understand the most about the current energy system from conversations about the energy transition,” a COP28 spokesperson told CCR.

The statement mirrored one that Patricia Espinosa, a former executive secretary of the UNFCCC, made in response to criticism of fossil fuel industry influence at COP25 in Spain: “There is no way we will [make] this transformation without the energy industry, including oil and gas.”

Many developing nations, advocacy groups and elected officials around the world see things quite differently, arguing that significant climate progress will only be achieved when the U.N. takes steps to limit fossil fuel interests from influencing its proceedings.

Last week, dozens of other elected officials from the U.S. and Europe, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Manon Aubry, a member of the European Parliament, renewed their calls for the UNFCCC to strengthen rules to protect the international climate talks from corporate interference.

“We continue to have profound concern that current rules governing the UNFCCC permit private sector polluters to exert undue influence on UNFCCC processes,” the lawmakers wrote. “At the end of this month, world governments will gather in Dubai for COP28. It is essential that we seize the opportunity to take actionable steps to address and protect climate policy from polluting interference by adopting concrete rules that limit the influence of the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists in the UNFCCC decision-making process.”

A new rule at this year’s conference requires fossil fuel lobbyists and all other participants to declare their affiliation or decline to do so publicly — a move that advocates celebrated as a long-overdue step toward greater transparency and accountability. In light of this week’s revelations about Al Jaber’s purported backdoor dealings, Whitehouse and other Democratic senators called on the U.N. to take additional action.

“This bombshell reporting on secretive sideline deals to boost oil and gas production — and fossil fuel emissions — raises alarms about the integrity of the entire summit,” he and Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a joint statement Tuesday. “For this COP to reach the outcome our planet so desperately needs, the public needs greater transparency into the often-clandestine fossil fuel influence pervasive at COPs past.”

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