Saudi Arabia piles pressure on UAE to shift COP28 focus away from oil and gas

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Saudi Arabia is obstructing the UN’s flagship climate negotiations and pressuring their presidency, the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to shift the focus away from oil and gas producing nations, according to several senior people involved in the talks.

Sultan al-Jaber, COP28 president and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is “under a lot of pressure” from Saudi Arabia, negotiators and European officials said.

A Gulf official said the Saudis were not happy with the way the UAE was handling the discussions in Dubai. Saudi Arabia’s minister of energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, half brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, missed his scheduled UN plenary session on Saturday after being waylaid in negotiations, a person briefed on the matter said.

The Saudi-dominated Opec oil cartel has also complained that the talks are seeking to exert “undue and disproportionate pressure against fossil fuels”, prompting a backlash from European ministers.

In a letter to Opec nations Haitham Al Ghais, the Kuwaiti oil executive serving as the cartel’s secretary-general, asked them to “reject any test or formula that targets energy, ie fossil fuels, rather than emissions”. It was first reported by Reuters.

Teresa Ribera, deputy prime minister of Spain and co-head of the EU’s COP28 negotiating team, said it was “disgusting that Opec countries are pushing against getting the bar where it has to be”. 

“We are not talking about getting rid of fossil fuels totally but unless we are creating the conditions [for emissions] to go down in a way that ensures the phaseout, it won’t happen,” said Ribera. “We will still be investing trillions of money that harm our climate.”

Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy, said she was concerned that not all countries were “constructively engaging”, and French energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said she was “stunned” and “angry” at the Opec push.

“I am counting on the presidency of [COP28] not to be impressed by these declarations and to reach an agreement which affirms a clear objective of phasing out fossil fuels,” Pannier-Runacher said.

Saudi Arabia’s seat was left empty at the COP28 talks in Dubai as its energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman missed his scheduled speech © REUTERS

EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra called on COP28 participants not to let the talks be derailed. “The name of the game is to go beyond narrowly defined self interest,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is the largest producer and most influential member of the 13 countries in Opec. Other group members include Iraq and the UAE, while the Opec+ group is made up of another 10 countries, including Russia, Mexico and Kazakhstan.

The cartel has become much more aggressive in opposing any threat to oil and gas production in the past year. It has attacked the International Energy Agency on multiple occasions for its opposition to new fossil fuel projects.

Opec has accused the IEA of destabilising energy markets and setting the world on course for a future energy crisis. 

The IEA says that oil, gas and coal demand are all set to peak before the end of this decade, but more aggressive government action will be required to see demand decline substantially enough to address climate change. 

Opec argues oil demand will keep expanding due to population and economic growth, forecasting it will be about 15 per cent higher by 2045. 

The question of the future of fossil fuels has become the defining issue of COP28, fuelling geopolitical tensions as the talks enter their final four days.

Activists staged a sit-down protest at the Opec pavilion at the conference in Dubai on Saturday, and called on the COP28 presidency to distance itself from the Opec statement. 

The COP28 presidency did not comment on Opec but referred back to Jaber’s Friday statement that he hoped countries would reach agreement about “fossil fuels that includes renewable energy and energy efficiency in line with what I said earlier—a just, fair, equitable, and orderly transition.”

Tina Stege, climate envoy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said the phasing-out of fossil fuels was “not negotiable”.

“Nothing puts the prosperity and future of all people on Earth, including all of the citizens of Opec countries, at greater risk than fossil fuels,” she said.

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