At COP28, an Oil Man Got a Deal on Quitting Oil

It was an unlikely scene: Sultan Al Jaber, chairman of one of the world’s biggest oil companies, stood before negotiators from nearly 200 nations on Wednesday and heralded a major new climate agreement that pledges to transition the global economy away from fossil fuels.

In language reminiscent of an award acceptance speech, Mr. Al Jaber congratulated the gathered diplomats, and himself, on proving the doubters wrong. After three decades of United Nations climate deals that neglected to even mention fossil fuels like oil and gas, he was presiding over the summit that explicitly targeted the main cause of global warming.

“Many said this could not be done,” Mr. Al Jaber said.

Mr. Al Jaber, 50, was a contentious choice to lead the annual climate negotiations, which are normally led by a politician or diplomat from the host country. The United Arab Emirates, this year’s host, selected him last January. While he does hold a several government positions, Mr. Al Jaber is largely dedicated to running the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

His brusque business style was on display at the summit, telling negotiators at one point to “work harder, work faster, work smarter.” And on Wednesday, just minutes after convening the final meeting, he declared the agreement approved before some diplomats had even reached their seats.

Negotiators from small islands, whose countries are among the most vulnerable to sea-level rise and other climate-fueled extreme weather events, complained that the agreement had been approved without their consent. They pointed out that the global agreement to shift away from fossil fuels lacked specific dates and had plenty of caveats and loopholes.

“It seems that you just gaveled the decision and the small island developing states were not in the room,” said Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for a group of 39 small island states, with anger in her voice. “This process has failed us.”

Coming into this year’s climate summit, the odds of a significant new climate agreement seemed low. Fossil fuel producing countries had managed to keep oil, gas, and, until recently, coal, out of the final declaration at past summits. And Mr. Al Jaber’s own company is investing at least $150 billion in expanded drilling over the next five years.

But even some climate advocates who initially saw the appointment of Mr. Al Jaber as risky, if not downright outrageous, said that the final agreement, while flawed in many ways, exceeded their expectations.

“From the beginning he had a lot of aspirational goals that sounded good, but we assumed he didn’t have a strategy to back it up,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the climate research group E3G who has attended all but one of the past climate summits. “But I’ve got to give him credit for producing the results. There are lots of problems with the final agreement, but there are also things that do signal this is a pivot point in the transition away from fossil fuels.”

His approach wasn’t without its detractors. Months before the conference began, more than 100 European and American lawmakers had sought Mr. Al Jaber’s removal, saying he was so compromised he could not broker a fair deal to rein in climate change.

And during the conference, many climate activists found it repulsive that a record number of fossil fuel representatives, at least 1,200 of them, attended this year’s summit.

Many world leaders and environmentalists also criticized the final climate agreement for being full of caveats that seemingly favored fossil-fuel interests. It encouraged countries to scale up carbon capture, a largely unproven technology favored by oil and gas companies, and it recognized a special role in the energy transition for so-called transitional fuels, seen as code for natural gas.

But others said it was surprising that nearly 200 countries could even agree to a statement that the world should transition away from fossil fuels, given longstanding opposition to such language from major oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia.

“The way this process is set up, one country can say no to the whole thing,” said John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy on climate change. “That actually makes it even more remarkable that this much ambition is contained in this document.”

All along, Mr. Al Jaber had argued that he was uniquely suited to the role of bringing about consensus between nations as disparate in their climate aspirations as Saudi Arabia and Vanuatu, a country that scientists say will be subsumed by sea-level rise caused by global warming.

In addition to being an oil executive, Mr. Al Jaber founded the Emirates’ leading renewable energy company, which has invested billions of dollars in projects all over the world. But even more important, he said, was his attitude of understanding and inclusion toward fossil fuel producing nations.

In the negotiating rooms cordoned off from the press, his handlers and other negotiators said, an agreement that would call for a transition away from fossil fuels came into view over hours of frenetic shuttle diplomacy between Mr. Al Jaber’s team and representatives with nearly diametrically opposite interests.

“In unity and solidarity we will walk a new path that the U.A.E. consensus has set for the world,” he said in his speech. “Together we will secure the future of this beautiful planet for the many generations to come.”

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