Deep divisions over oil and gas industry role challenge UN climate talks

Deep divisions over how to combat global warming at the next climate summit were on display this week, as efforts to green the world’s energy system were challenged by oil and gas executives, and petrostates.

As world leaders and top officials gathered in New York ahead of the UN COP28 climate summit in ten weeks, a deep rift was on show between countries that support the expansion of fossil fuels, and those that insist stopping all new development is critical to stabilising the earth’s temperatures. 

“Countries understand that we need to progress,” said Dan Jørgensen, Denmark’s minister for development co-operation and global climate policy, who is chairing discussions on what fresh climate targets could be agreed on at COP28 in December. 

“The bad news is even though we agree on that, we are pretty far from having a consensus on what that actually means. We need to address the elephant in the room — the burning of fossil fuels,” he said.

On the fringes of the New York event this week, the world’s climate negotiators tested diplomatic language that might be agreed in Dubai, where COP28 will strive to come to a global agreement.

The biggest source of friction is the precise nature of a “phase out” of fossil fuels, and whether this would allow for the expansion of carbon capture technologies, also known as abatement. Climate summits over successive years have failed to agree on this wording.

French president Emmanuel Macron and Kenyan president William Ruto were among 17 leaders who signed a letter last week insisting that “abatement technology cannot be used to greenlight fossil fuel expansion”.

Until the world stopped adding carbon to the atmosphere, they said, “the need to continuously adapt will never end. The costs will go up and up. We will count them in human lives.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said major polluters should match the EU’s goal that “unabated fossil fuels are phased out well before 2050”.

Under pressure from developing nations seeking funding to shift to green energy systems, US climate envoy John Kerry hit out at new unabated coal developments in Asia, where China and India are boosting production.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000km away, oil bosses assembled in the more friendly environs of Calgary, Alberta — the heart of the Canadian oil industry — for an altogether different conversation. 

At the World Petroleum Congress, a biennial oil and gas conference, some 500 industry executives including ExxonMobil’s Darren Woods warned of the risks of moving away from fossil fuels too quickly.

Amin Nasser, chief executive of Saudi Aramco, left, Hou Qijun, president of China National Petroleum, centre, and Darren Woods, executive chair of ExxonMobil, right. The oil and gas executives rejected any near-term shift away from fossil fuels. © Bloomberg

“I see many shortcomings in the current transition approach that can no longer be ignored,” Amin Nasser, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil producer told his audience, which included large delegations from Canada and Saudi Arabia.

“Phasing out conventional energy prematurely could put energy security and affordability priorities at risk,” Nasser said. “As the recent energy crisis has shown — compounded by the conflict in Ukraine — the world wobbles if these realities are ignored, or wished away.”

At the same event, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, sought to undermine the International Energy Agency’s latest forecast that global fossil fuel demand would peak this decade as cheaper and cleaner renewable energy rises rapidly.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, criticised IEA forecasts for the end of fossil fuels. © Bloomberg

Back in New York, the heads of small island nations including Tuvalu and Palau tried to convey the need for wider alarm about the existential threat posed by rising sea levels.

“If the world allows an entire country to disappear because of climate change, there will be no hope for anyone else,” said Kausea Natano, the prime minister of Tuvalu. 

Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados — who has spearheaded efforts by small nations ravaged by climate change to secure more funding from the wealthy world — declared that “enough is enough”.

“[Climate change] is not challenging just for small states, it’s challenging for most countries globally, including the developed world,” said Mottley. “And perhaps that’s a good thing because . . . the sense of urgency has come to the table in a way it hasn’t for decades.”

But when world leaders head to COP28 in December with hopes of thrashing out an agreement to preserve the goal of limiting warming, the fossil fuel industry executives expected to attend alongside them will be pushing against cuts to production before 2050.

The industry prominence at the summit, along with the negotiating teams of countries that depend on its prosperity, remains a source of acrimony and mistrust.

Campaigners and a group of more than 130 liberal EU and US lawmakers have attacked the presidency of the summit in the United Arab Emirates, led by Sultan al-Jaber, also head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

US climate envoy John Kerry attends the Climate Ambition Summit at the UN headquarters on September 20 in New York City © Getty Images

US climate envoy John Kerry has defended the industry’s inclusion as essential for the planning of emission cuts. Executives in Calgary too argued that rather than turning its back on the oil and gas sector, the world should be making the most of its carbon expertise.

But as the debate over the role of carbon capture technologies in fossil fuel development ramps up — and economies such as the UK, South Korea and Japan dither on green targets — the industry is taking advantage to put its case.

Al Gore, the former US vice-president and climate campaigner, reflected the disquiet about the fossil fuel industry’s “capture” of global UN negotiations on climate change “to a disturbing degree”.

Most in the sector wanted to “block and delay and prevent anything that would reduce the sale and burning of fossil fuels”, Gore told the FT. “It’s simply not realistic to believe that they are going to take the lead in solving this crisis.”

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