COP28: Petro-circus

Blog Post
Dec. 14, 2023

Negotiations went deep into overtime at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP28) as leaders debated whether we could globally agree to phase out fossils, leaving many to wonder if oil interests would sink the outcome and all our fates. In the end, it delivered a rough sketch on transitioning our global energy systems towards a renewable reality, which the conference president called “historic.” Yes, it’s the first time we have a global signal that we must transition away from fossil fuels—but it largely left the fate of our planet up to how fossil fuel interests choose to reach net zero. What could go wrong?

COP28 had more attendees and media than any in recent memory, but this attention was fueled by the influence and avarice of fossil fuels. This COP—hosted by an OPEC country, led by the head of a national oil company who filled headlines with anti-climate science statements, and with an outsized  presence by oil interests—somehow was tasked with saving the planet from ourselves. COP28 didn’t miss an opportunity to underscore the many ways oil interests are the hurdle to action, and the cause of our climate crisis.

Meanwhile, we are experiencing the hottest year ever recorded. Our climate crisis is already here. We are feeling the impacts of a 1.2°C world and bearing the costs in blood and treasure. A $1 billion climate-fueled event in the United States happens every three weeks. Fires in Greece, Spain, and Italy scorched over 1 million acres of land and caused an estimated $4 billion in damages this year. Climate fueled disasters cost us about $391 million globally every day. We are hitting key Earth system tipping points—where parts of the Amazon rainforest are now adding to emissions rather than absorbing them. The stakes could not be higher.

Oil’s Expanding Influence

While we are actively paying for the consequences of our climate reality, we are still actively paying for the cause. Fossil fuels account for 75% of global emissions, yet we continue to fund them with 7% of global GDP, to the tune of $7 trillion in subsidies for 2022, a sum expected to rise year on year despite COP28 outcomes. Even with record profits for oil companies in hand, oil interests saw COP28 as an opportunity for continued relevance in a world desperate to cut emissions and address our climate challenges. Unlike others in attendance, oil interests used COP28 not as a forum to manage the phase down or phase out of fossils, but as a springboard for expansion and an opportunity to stall progress. This is largely in keeping with oil influencers at past COPs, and illustrative of Russia’s stonewalling of COP29. What makes this COP different is that oil interests are at the helm rather than in the audience.

Setting the conference agenda was Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), who was appointed COP28 president in what former U.S. vice president Al Gore called “the most brazen conflict of interest in the history of climate negotiations.” Climate advocacy groups around the world called unsuccessfully for Sultan Al Jaber’s resignation from his ADNOC position during his COP presidency; he fought back by highlighting his two-decade experience in renewable energy.  

Sadly, he proved his critics correct. The day before COP28 began, news broke that Sultan Al Jaber and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) planned to promote oil deals alongside the climate talks, according to leaked briefing materials obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting. His talking points for bilateral meetings with 15 countries highlighted ADNOC's interest in collaboratively extracting their oil and gas resources. Increasing the tensions, a video resurfaced, showing him in a panel discussion where he said there is “no science” behind a measured phase out of fossil fuels to keep the 1.5°C dream alive. 

In a similar vein, Saudi Arabia used the conference as a promotional opportunity for its global investment plan to elevate demand for Saudi oil and gas in energy-impoverished countries, despite the fact that it is less costly and promotes more co-benefits for developing countries to leapfrog into renewable energy, as UN secretary general António Guterres has called for. Saudi Arabia’s plan aspires to lock countries into fossil fuels decades to come, precisely when wealthier nations are transitioning to cleaner renewable alternatives. 

Over 2,000 lobbyists from fossil fuel companies attended COP28. That’s nearly four times more than at any previous COP and more than any country delegation save the UAE. Further underscoring the lobbying power of oil, the head of OPEC released a statement, telling petroleum interests to reject any deal at COP28 that involved a phase out or phase down of fossils. They’ve gotten what they wished for. Oil’s outsized influence at COP28 cannot be understated.

COP28 Energy Transition?

For us to meet our joint energy and climate crises head on, three things must be true: we need to phase out fossil fuels in a just and equitable way that includes new and expanded rules around methane emissions, we need to triple investments in renewables with sustainability and justice in mind, and we need to double energy efficiency. COP28 delivered on about two-thirds of that, giving us a starting roadmap of global targets to meet our energy challenges, but missing the mark on a concrete phase out of fossil fuels.

Country delegations at COP28 were able to agree on the following energy transition goals, each with their own loopholes and opportunities for a continued presence of fossils:

  • Triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency by 2030.
  • Accelerate efforts to phase down unabated coal (no timeline given). 
  • Increase efforts towards net zero emissions energy systems via low carbon fuels, renewables, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) by 2050.
  • Accelerate methane emission reductions by 2030.
  • Phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address poverty or just transitions ASAP (no timeline given).
  • Transition away from fossil fuel energy systems in a just and equitable manner to achieve net zero by 2050. 

While these goals are a start, they do not push us towards a complete phase out of fossil fuels. Rather, it sets the table for fossil fuels to continue to be a part of our energy matrices—so long as they utilize CCS or other emissions abatement options. While this isn’t the world we want, it is a significant step in the right direction. It will be up to future COPs to increase our ambitions and push for a just and equitable phase out of fossil fuels that does not rely on unproven and costly CCS technologies, or the injustices surrounding carbon offsets (which often don’t offset anything). Others increased ambition at COP28, with 100 countries pledging to phase out fossil fuels and commit to be net zero by 2050, along with 50 oil companies—including UAE’s own state oil company ADNOC. While the means of reaching net zero were left opaque from these COP28 side pledges, it represents a clear signal that many wanted a more ambitious energy transition roadmap.

We also got a climate action report card, and the results were lackluster. The first Global Stocktake showed us that right now, our first round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) via the Paris Agreement did not meet our climate needs nor our global emissions reduction goals. Knowing this will help shape national priorities and future NDCs countries will submit at COP30 in Brazil. 

On the climate finance front, pledges and commitments to the loss and damage fund, established at COP27 in Egypt, reached a paltry $700 million, roughly 0.2% of the need. COP28 also saw big banks commit $270 billion specifically to sustainability projects by 2030. These initial pledges leave many questions surrounding the transparency and terms for this financing, and the types of projects it may finance—like CCS.

The petro circus that was COP28 has come to an end, but what’s next? The outcomes leave much to be desired, but do give us an unprecedented goal on a transition towards clean energy and away from fossils. How we transition away from fossils matters, and who is at the table matters. It’s clear that the only reason we were able to achieve these outcomes is because we are living in unprecedented climate times. But we should not ignore the unabated influence of oil at future COPs. More will be up for debate at COP29 and later COP30, where the second round of NDCs will be submitted. Each COP gives us the potential for increased ambition. Our global stocktake showed how far we are from our emissions reduction goals. Only dramatic changes to our energy systems will afford us a livable planet for ourselves and future generations. We will have to decide as a collective body politic if wealth today is worth the expense of lives, livelihoods, and all our futures.

Martha Molfetas is a Senior Fellow, Planetary Politics, at New America, and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture in the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. Martha is a senior climate policy consultant, writer, and strategist with over 15-years of experience helping NGOs, think tanks, and businesses unpack climate, environmental justice, conflict, sustainable development, and global policy issues.

Heela Rasool-Ayub is the Director for the Planetary Politics initiative at New America. She has over 20 years of experience working at the intersection of development and foreign policy.