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Oil company chief’s appointment to lead COP28 climate conference sparks backlash

KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

(LONDON) — The appointment of an oil executive as head of the United Nations’ COP28 climate conference on Thursday sparked backlash from environmental organizations.

The Office of the United Arab Emirates’ Special Envoy for Climate Change announced Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the head of the state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as the president-designate for the 2023 climate change conference, which will take place in Dubai over two weeks in November and December.

Al Jaber is chair of the UAE government-owned renewable energy company Masdar and has served as the UAE’s climate envoy twice, a statement from the special envoy said.

He is the first CEO to ever serve as COP president, “having played a key role in shaping the country’s clean energy path,” according to Al Jaber’s office.

The president of the conference is confirmed by the delegates to the conference when it begins.

But the announcement Thursday over the appointment of a top oil executive to lead the most important climate conference of the year was quickly met with disapproval by some environmental policy experts and activists who called for the CEO to step down from his role leading one of the biggest oil companies in the world.

Al Jaber’s nomination is “devastating blow to the climate negotiations at a critical moment in history,” Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, told ABC News.

He must resign from the oil company he presides over in order to obtain a seat at COP, not to mention the presidency, Berman said.

“The nomination of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber is a clear example of the fox watching the hen house,” Berman said. “The oil and gas companies are not going to design their own demise.”

The appointment of Al Jaber to lead COP28 is “egregious” and “could potentially impede the sole purpose of the meeting,” Delta Merner, head of the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union for Concerned Scientists, told ABC News.

“During COP27, we saw a 25% increase in fossil fuel interest direct participation in the meeting, this is a trend we need to move away from for meaningful progress, not embrace through leadership choices,” Merner said. He agreed that Al Jaber should step down from his role overseeing the production of fossil fuels.

Catherine Abreu, founder and executive director of environmental nonprofit Destination Zero, told ABC News, “An oil company CEO cannot be the kind of President that COP28 needs.”

“A person tasked with making the most profit possible from oil and gas extraction can’t be the same person tasked with landing the most ambitious outcome possible from a climate conference,” Abreu said.

Al Jaber’s appointment “sets a dangerous precedent” and risks the credibility of the UAE, Tracy Carty, global climate politics expert with Greenpeace, said in a statement.

“Greenpeace is deeply alarmed at the appointment of an oil company CEO to lead the global climate negotiations,” Carty said.

Carty continued, “There is no place for the fossil fuel industry in the global climate negotiations.”

Tasneem Essop, executive director for the Climate Action Network International, described Al Jaber’s appointment as a “conflict of interest.”

“He cannot preside over a process that is tasked to address the climate crisis with such a conflict of interest, heading an industry that is responsible for the crisis itself,” Essop said.

Every year, the country hosting the U.N.’s Conference of the Parties, from which COP gets its name, nominates someone — typically a veteran diplomat — to chair the talks.

“This will be a critical year in a critical decade for climate action,” Al Jaber said in a statement. “The UAE is approaching COP28 with a strong sense of responsibility and the highest possible level of ambition.”

“The announcement further highlights the UAE’s regional leadership in climate action and its role as a global advocate for clean energy,” the Office of the UAE’s Special Envoy for Climate Change added. “The UAE is home to three of the largest and lowest-cost solar projects in the world and has invested more than $50 billion in renewable energy projects across 70 countries, with plans to invest a minimum of $50 billion over the next decade.”

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