Unprecedented Lobbying Presence At COP28 Sparks Controversy Over Fossil Fuel Influence

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The COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates has become a battleground for divergent interests, particularly with a staggering surge in fossil fuel lobbyists attending the talks. According to a report by the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition, a record-breaking 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists have gained access to the summit, marking a significant increase from previous years. This influx, exceeding the attendance of most country delegations, has ignited debates over the role of the fossil fuel industry in shaping global climate policies.

While the distinction may seem subtle, it holds significant meaning. Opting for a phase-down of fossil fuels entails countries agreeing to reduce their reliance on these sources in favor of environmentally friendly energy alternatives such as wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear energy. However, it still acknowledges the inclusion of fossil fuels in the global energy mix as ongoing efforts to address climate change persist. On the other hand, a phaseout advocates for a comprehensive cessation of burning fossil fuels for energy. This strategy has encountered limited support from delegates in prior climate summits, particularly from nations heavily dependent on revenue from oil and gas exports.

Major producers such as the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have consistently opposed calls for the complete elimination of fossil fuels. Most recently, on December 4, Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman emphatically stated his refusal to support any efforts to phase down, let alone phase out, the use of fossil fuels. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Salman asserted, “And I assure you not a single person — I’m talking about governments — believes in that.” This sentiment aligns with the historical resistance from influential nations against measures advocating for a reduction or discontinuation of fossil fuel usage. Contrastingly, earlier this year, UAE Climate Change and Environment Minister Mariam Almheiri took a different stance by endorsing the phasing out of fuel emissions rather than the abandonment of oil, gas, and coal exploitation. Almheiri contended that a phaseout strategy would disproportionately harm countries reliant on fossil fuels to sustain their economies. Expressing her viewpoint to Reuters news agency, she emphasized, “The renewable space is advancing and accelerating extremely fast, but we are nowhere near to be able to say that we can switch off fossil fuels and solely depend on clean and renewable energy.” Almheiri underscored the need for a just and pragmatic transition, recognizing the varying resources available to different countries. Notably, a November 2023 report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) revealed that the UAE’s state oil company, ADNOC, has committed a substantial $150-billion (€140-million) investment plan to enhance its oil production capacity by 2027.

At the midpoint of the two-week COP28 summit, the overwhelming presence of nearly 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists has raised eyebrows and sparked concerns among environmental advocates. The Kick Big Polluters Out coalition’s analysis highlighted that only Brazil and the host country, the United Arab Emirates, had larger delegations than the fossil fuel lobbyists. This development has prompted campaigners to assert that such a substantial representation is “beyond justification,” suggesting a concerted effort by polluting industries to prioritize their agenda over the concerns of frontline communities.

While critics argue that the sheer number of fossil fuel lobbyists threatens the integrity of the climate talks, some, including former U.S. energy secretary Ernest Moniz, contend that the participation of Big Oil in COP28 should be welcomed. This divergence in perspectives reflects broader debates surrounding the role of fossil fuel industries in climate negotiations and the urgent need for decisive action to combat climate change.

The International Energy Agency, in the lead-up to COP28, emphasized that the oil and gas industry faces a “moment of truth” regarding its contribution to the global energy system and the escalating climate crisis. The presence of a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists adds a layer of complexity to this moment, as stakeholders grapple with the implications of such significant industry involvement in shaping climate policies.

The increased lobbying presence comes at a crucial juncture in the negotiations over the future of fossil fuels. Calls for a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, driven by their role as the primary driver of the climate crisis, face opposition. Russia has explicitly stated its opposition to incorporating “phase out” language in the final agreement, while the host country, the United Arab Emirates, signals a preference for a “phase down” approach. This dichotomy in viewpoints poses a substantial challenge to reaching a consensus on the direction of global climate policies.

Central to the negotiations is the choice between “phase out” and “phase down.” Advocates for a phase-out argue for a complete elimination of fossil fuels, while those favoring a phase-down propose a gradual reduction in their use. The language of the final agreement holds immense significance, as a commitment to “phase out” would necessitate a complete departure from fossil fuels, whereas “phase down” suggests a reduction without a complete cessation.

Complicating matters further is the debate over distinguishing between “abated” and “unabated” fossil fuels. The former involves technologies such as carbon capture and storage, while the latter refers to fossil fuels produced and used without substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. These nuances in language and targets reflect the intricate negotiations taking place at COP28.

Despite the contentious discussions, COP28 has seen noteworthy developments, including a landmark deal to assist the world’s most vulnerable countries in coping with the impacts of climate disasters. Additionally, a series of announcements aimed at decarbonizing the energy sector have emerged, with nearly 120 governments pledging to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. These initiatives signify a global commitment to transitioning towards sustainable and clean energy sources, although the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists remains a persistent concern.

The unprecedented presence of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28 has ignited a fierce debate over their influence on climate negotiations. As stakeholders grapple with divergent perspectives on the future of fossil fuels, the choice between “phase out” and “phase down” and the distinctions between “abated” and “unabated” fossil fuels underscore the complexity of reaching a consensus. While landmark deals and commitments to decarbonization offer glimmers of hope, the pervasive lobbying by the fossil fuel industry raises questions about the true priorities guiding global climate policies. As COP28 progresses, the world watches closely, hoping for meaningful and decisive actions to address the urgent climate crisis.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Eurasia Review [Link]