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What Cop28 can learn from the World Economic Forum

Davos meets Dubai on the climate change debate

Cop28 WEF Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
Greta Thunberg tried to encourage delegates to use the train rather than private jets to get to the Davos annual meeting

The World Economic Forum is the world’s intellectual leader in summitry. Cop28 will be the biggest ever meeting of minds on the critical subject of climate change.

What can the UAE presidency – which loses the “designate” status in just a few days when the event kicks off in Dubai – learn from the WEF’s stance on climate change?

That is not such a random question as it might first appear. The WEF, heavily influenced by thinking in Europe and North America but with a global membership and a big draw for the oil producing countries of the Arabian Gulf, has undergone its own environmental epiphany over the decades.

Greta Thunberg has received a rapturous welcome at the Davos annual meeting, which has taken on a more environmental stance in recent years – even to the point of trying to incentivise delegates to use the train to get to the Swiss town, rather than private jets.

On the other hand, WEF is also a prime venue for the people who use those jets – the masters of the business universe who are generally seen as being antipathetic to the environmentalist cause.

(Note: Attempting to travel by train to Cop28 is not advised – apart from Dubai metro.)

Recent conversations with some leaders at WEF’s Geneva HQ reveal a nuanced approach to the issues that are likely to generate the headlines from Cop28.

The WEF is keenly aware of the need to do something urgently about climate change but is by no means in the “just stop oil” camp.

The “global stocktake” that will be unveiled in Dubai will be a reminder that global warning is an ever-more urgent crisis, the WEF believes, but that should only accelerate the search for solutions.

In particular, WEF is pleased by the Cop’s emphasis on nature-based solutions and on the focus on the impact climate change will have on health.

On the critical issue of the “phase-down” of fossil fuels, the WEF does not want to get involved in what is likely to be one of the more contentious semantic aspects of the Cop negotiations.

But it takes its cue from the increasingly anti-hydrocarbon stance of the International Energy Agency which sees oil and gas at between only 20 and 5 per cent of the global energy mix by 2050, depending on factors like carbon capture and storage (CCS).

On another problematic angle, I was told emphatically that the oil companies (including the National Oil Companies of the Arabian Gulf) are seen as an essential part of the problem-solving process.

“We cannot do it [reach the Paris Agreement goals] without the oil and gas companies, if we can engage them. The stakes are too high and the time too short to criticise them,” one WEF official said.

The WEF would like to see Cop28 achieve some quick wins to “bend the emissions curve” down from the inexorable rise in CO2 of recent years – lower-emissions hydrocarbons, a big expansion in renewables, clean hydrogen, even nuclear, are all regarded as valuable options for the short-to-medium term.

On the financial aspects of climate change, the WEF official was surprisingly non-committal.

You might have thought that a big global fund with input from governments and the private sector was bread-and-butter for the Davos crowd, but there was little detail on that, beyond the need to finance some “adaptation” measures.

On one potentially critical issue – climate technology – the WEF took a stance that was distinctly at-odds with the position of the Cop presidency and the majority of hydrocarbon producers.

Innovative techniques in CCS and direct air capture – elevated by the oil industry to near “silver bullet” status in the battle against global warming – were a positive development, WEF said – but only as a mechanism against “residual” CO2 emissions. “Technology is no substitute for real decarbonisation,” I was told.

The WEF believes political gestures should be kept separate from the climate-change debate, which is very much in tune with the thinking of the Cop presidency. The UAE, like Davos, will have little patience with more extreme manifestations of environmentalist angst.

On one item – the desirability of air travel – the WEF and the UAE appear in total agreement.

The WEF – globalisers par excellence – cannot not operate its lengthening list of international gatherings without air travel; the 80,000 who will attend Cop28 have no alternative if they are to get to the event in Dubai.

It’s no wonder both the WEF and the UAE are keen exponents of sustainable aviation fuels.

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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