This year’s UN climate summit is marked by being the first to invite oil and gas companies to participate in the official programme of events at COP27 in Egypt, where Saudi Arabia says it does not see the effort to limit global warming as being “a discussion about fossil fuels”.
Just a short bus ride away from the COP27 centre at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort town, the world’s biggest oil exporter has hosted its own “green initiative” inside a domed structure with luxury eco-hotel aesthetics.
Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir told the FT that the Paris Agreement goal struck in 2015 to keep global warming to 1.5C, ideally, was “achievable”, but “we don’t see this as a discussion about fossil fuels.”
Meanwhile, US climate envoy John Kerry was being asked at a media briefing about a push by “a few” countries to omit the global warming goal of 1.5C, or 2C at worst, from the concluding text in the COP27 negotiations. He confirmed that a “very few countries” had “raised the issue.”
Saudi minister al-Jubeir, reportedly dining with his counterpart Kerry that night, would not be drawn on whether the Kingdom wanted a reference to 1.5C in the text, saying he would “leave that to the negotiators.”
The rise of the oil and gas lobby is particular notable at COP27, where the host country itself announced deal to sell to gas to Europe in return for replacing old thermal power plants with cleaner energy.
Campaign group Global Witness estimated that more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists were registered for COP27 — a quarter more than the year before. The United Arab Emirates, the petrostate that will host next year’s COP28 summit, had the most of any country — 70 official delegates.
What Saudi Arabia and some other fossil fuel-reliant countries at the summit are keen to discuss is how they can continue to produce oil and gas. The focus should be on reducing emissions, not targeting the sector, they argue.
“You can achieve carbon neutrality while producing fossil fuels, and we’re proving it in Saudi Arabia,” al-Jubeir said in an interview.
The Saudi event featured TotalEnergies chair Patrick Pouyanné, and Amin Nasser, chief executive of the state-owned Saudi Aramco. Nasser listed tree planting, carbon capture technology, hydrogen fuel derived from gas and a “circular carbon economy”, or recycling, as climate solutions.
Running in parallel at COP27, the “decarbonisation day” on Friday featured a panel on greening the oil and gas sector that posed questions such as “what is your vision for developing oil and gas resources while reducing emissions?”
Bechtel’s Stu Jones told the audience that COP27 was the first at which “international oil companies have been invited to participate . . . This recognises the fact that the [integrated oil companies] have an important role to play in decarbonisation and reducing emissions”. Many had promised to support the Paris Agreement goals, he added.
“I have been to eight COPs, and never seen any such blatant oil and gas promotion from a presidency before,” said David Tong from Oil Change International. “There’s no legitimacy in a COP presidency giving a big platform to major polluters without even asking them hard questions.”
Egypt’s COP27 ambassador Wael Aboulmagd said he did not have exact figures for lobbyists present, but insisted that “decarbonisation day” speakers had been vetted to ensure that they had demonstrated real action.
The heads of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum and OPEC will make formal statements at the UN summit next week, alongside world leaders, non profit organisation leaders and intergovernmental groups.
“I don’t think we can continue having to cope with such an overwhelming presence,” said Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris Agreement. “They have so much money to do public relations . . . They come when they see that things are getting really bad [for the industry].”
The gas industry lobby was a “huge problem,” said Catherine McKenna, the former Canadian climate minister who launched a UN-commissioned report last week about how to combat corporate greenwashing.
Among the divisive subjects at COP27 is whether gas can be regarded as a “transition” fuel, or an interim step as the use of coal is phased down. It is made up mainly of methane, which has 80 times the warming power of carbon, but is shorter lived.
“We are heavily investing in gas, because gas is a transition fuel,” said TotalEnergies’ Pouyanne at the Saudi summit.
Days before the start of COP, Egypt’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources, Tarek El Molla, said gas would “continue to play a key role in the future energy mix”.
Patricia Espinosa, the Mexican diplomat who stepped down from her role as the UN climate chief this year, said generalisations were unhelpful because countries had specific needs and resources. If nations believed new gas was essential, they should outline a clear plan for moving away from it in the longer term, she said.
“That is what we are not seeing . . . We still don’t have a serious assessment, a serious study of what the energy transition will look like.”
Formal negotiations will be the focus of COP next week, which analysts fear may be influenced by fossil fuel interests looking to hold back more ambitious climate action.
People familiar with the talks said countries including China and Saudi Arabia wanted to limit a “work programme” for how countries would work together to cut emissions faster in the years to 2030.
Addressing the disappointment with the US leadership on raising capital for the shift to clean energy in poorer countries, US senator Sheldon Whitehouse said “corporate America” had held back ambition.
“The fossil fuel industry runs a very complex and elaborate operation to attack climate measures, usually hiding its hand behind front groups” since publicly listed companies “don’t want to own their behaviour”, he said. “It’s a massive political influence operation — it is very powerful.”
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