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In Riyadh, the Middle East rehearses for Cop28

The oil producers' message is clear: we'll change in our own time

We'll do it our way: Cop28 president-designate Sultan Al Jaber speaks at the Mena Climate Week Forum in Riyadh Wam
We'll do it our way: Cop28 president-designate Sultan Al Jaber speaks at the Mena Climate Week Forum in Riyadh

The message from the Middle East oil producers to environmental radicals came loud and clear from Riyadh over the weekend: “We agree with you on the science, and like you we are wholeheartedly committed to combating climate change. But in our own way. Don’t tell us how to do it.”

Speaker after speaker at the Mena Climate Week forum in the Saudi capital hammered it home – while committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and preparing for the day when fossil fuels will no longer be part of the global energy mix, any suggestion to “just stop oil” would be disastrous for the global economy, and firmly resisted.

The event is the last of the regional forums organized by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

When the parties next meet, it will be at the pre-Cop meeting in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi later this month, just down the road from the main event in Dubai at the end of November.

The Riyadh gathering had the air of an occasion where all the participants were looking to get their ducks in a row ahead of the big one, and where positions and policy stances could be rehearsed well in advance. 

There were few of those pesky environmentalists present in Riyadh, unless you count Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC who has been suspected by Gulf energy people of harbouring views too close to the Greta Thunberg wing of the green lobby for their liking.

He confirmed some suspicions by declaring that climate technology – like Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage in which the oil men set great store – was no alternative to phasing down fossil fuels.

This was in sharp contrast to the view of Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, who lauded the prospects for “removal technology” which he said must be spread all round the world.

“Human ingenuity will continue to thrive,” he said, holding to the line that the world’s scientists and engineers will find a cost-effective and scalable way to extract harmful CO2 from the atmosphere.

Sultan Al Jaber, in the role of Cop president-in-waiting, was in subtly combative mood. He pointed out – in an oblique dig at those criticising him for being an oil executive in charge of a climate change conference – that of the previous 27 Cops, 17 had been held in fossil fuel producing countries.

“There is no simple solution. We cannot unplug the energy systems of today to make way for those of the future,” said Al Jaber. But he ended with a declaration of his Cop28 vision: “Maximum ambition, zero emissions.”

That stance was backed up by the UAE energy minister Suhail Al Mazrouei, who tried to clarify the apparent contradiction of the UAE’s net zero goal with its declared ambition to increase its oil capabilities to five million barrels per day by 2027 (from around three million currently.)

“That figure is not output. It is extra capacity, in case the world needs it during the transition,” Al Mazrouei insisted.

There was much emphasis on the importance of the Global Stock Take intended to be announced in Dubai. This is the Cop’s five year update on progress towards the Paris Agreement goals – and recommendations on future actions – but the first since the mechanism was put in place in 2017.

In Dubai, this could descend into a “naming and shaming” exercise of calling out countries which have not lived up to their commitments, but the Mena participants in Riyadh were keen this should not be the case.

“We are all on the same page on the urgency to act, but each country will have its own approach and individual pathway, as is its right under the Paris Agreement,” Prince Abdulaziz insisted.

There are still some weeks to go until Cop28, but on the basis of the Riyadh gathering the basic “shopping list” of the Mena countries is crystalising:

  • Avoidance of any reference to further “phasing down” of fossil fuels, while recognising that energy transition is “inevitable”.
  • A commitment to a big expansion of renewable energy by 2030, as much as a three-fold increase, and an end to all methane emissions.
  • A final and long-awaited implementation of the “loss and damage” fund for developing nations to compensate them for the cost of energy transition, and hopefully an upgrade on the $100 billion figure which has so far been ignored. 
  • A recognition by Cop28 – and especially the environmental activists in Europe – that investment in climate change technology like carbon capture is not just a smoke screen to carry on pumping hydrocarbons.

How far the rest of the world goes along with those items will largely determine whether or not Cop28 goes down in history as a success.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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