Updated Dec 3, 2023 - Energy & Environment

COP28 president says there's "no science" in fossil fuel phase-out calls

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, chief executive officer of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC) and president of COP28, speaks during the Summit on Methane and Other Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases on day three of the COP28 climate conference at Expo City in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC) and president of COP28, speaking at the U.N. climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday. Photo: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber's newly reported comments that there's "no science" behind the push to phase out fossil fuels were criticized by activists at the U.N. climate summit in Dubai on Sunday.

Context: The UAE climate envoy and CEO of state oil firm ADNOC made the comments during a Nov. 21 online discussion while being challenged to take a lead on the matter by former Republic of Ireland President Mary Robinson, a longtime climate activist, per video that The Guardian published Sunday.

Flashback: United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said Friday: "The science is clear. The 1.5 degree [2.7°F] limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning fossil fuels — not reduce, not abate, [but] phase out with a clear time frame aligned with 1.5 degrees."

Zoom in: Robinson said at the SHE Changes Climate online event that the climate crisis is "hurting" people because there's no commitment to a fossil fuel phase-out, as leaders of the EU and others have called for.

  • Al-Jaber said 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 1.5°C" above preindustrial levels, a Paris Agreement target.
  • "Show me a roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuels that will allow for sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves," he said.
  • However, al-Jaber did say that a phase-out of fossil fuel was "inevitable" and "essential," echoing comments he's made previously, but "we need to be real serious and pragmatic about it."

Zoom out: The most recent assessments from the U.N.'s climate science panel say that cutting emissions steeply by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050, is needed to have a chance at limiting warming to 1.5°C.

  • A U.N. report last month recommended a "near total phase-out" of coal production by 2040 and a three-quarters reduction in oil and gas production and use by 2050 compared with 2020 levels.

What they're saying: Romain Ioualalen, Oil Change International's global policy lead, said in a statement that al-Jaber's comments "are alarming and raise deep concerns about the presidency's capacity to lead the UN climate talks at a time when leadership and a clear vision are most needed."

  • In a post on X, climate scientist Bill McGuire called al-Jaber's remarks "farcical."
  • Tom Evans, with the consultancy E3G, said it "amps up" pressure on al-Jaber, per Bloomberg. "If COP doesn't strike a deal on eliminating fossil fuels, many countries will be to blame — but fingers will be pointing at the UAE," he added.

Meanwhile, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry responded to al-Jaber's "no science" remarks by saying "that's not the argument."

  • Every decision leaders make should be geared to reflect G7 countries' commitment to phasing out "unmitigated fossil fuel emissions and what there is science for is keeping 1.5 degrees as your North Star," Kerry told CNBC in Dubai on Monday morning.
  • "People are arguing that the fossil fuel industry, which is obviously responsible for the emissions that are going up, needs to step up and do more," added Kerry, who said he believed al-Jaber would say that, too.
  • "We are in a race against time, and I know that everybody here does accept that concept."

The other side: A COP28 spokesperson said in an emailed statement Sunday night that the video report was "another attempt to undermine the Presidency's agenda, which has been clear and transparent and backed by tangible achievements" by the COP president and his team.

  • Al-Jaber is "unwavering in saying reaching 1.5°C involves action across a number of areas and sectors" and "clear that phasing down and out of fossil fuels is inevitable and that we must keep 1.5°C within reach," the spokesperson said.
  • "We are not sure what this story was supposedly revealing. Nothing in it is new or breaking news," the spokesperson added.
"As COP28 continues this week, the COP President is focused on working with parties to deliver a plan that will deliver maximum transition and minimal disruption for everyone in the world. He has repeatedly communicated our position on fossil fuels and invited all parties to work together and come up with solutions that can achieve alignment, common ground and consensus. Once again, we are excited with the progress we have made so far and for the delivery of an ambitious GST decision."
— Excerpt from COP28 spokesperson's statement

The intrigue: The video could embolden the nations in favor of a fossil fuel phase-out to push for such language in a Dubai agreement.

Go deeper: Fossil fuel lobbying in the spotlight at COP28

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from a COP28 spokesperson, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and scientist Bill McGuire.

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