Fossil fuel producers flex their muscles at UN climate summit

© Saudi Royal Palace/AFP/Getty Images

This year’s UN climate summit is notable for being the first to invite oil and gas companies to participate in the official program of COP27 events in Egypt, where Saudi Arabia says don’t view the effort to limit global warming as “a fossil fuel discussion”.

A short bus ride from the COP27 center in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, the world’s largest oil exporter hosted its own “green initiative” in a domed structure with an eco-friendly aesthetic. luxurious hotel.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told the FT that the Paris Agreement target set in 2015 to keep global warming to 1.5C ideally was ‘achievable’ , but “we don’t see this as a discussion of fossils”. fuels. »

Meanwhile, US climate envoy John Kerry was asked at a press conference about a push by “a few” countries to omit the 1.5C global warming target, or at worst by 2°C, of ​​the closing text of the COP27 negotiations. He confirmed that “very few countries” had “raised the issue”.

Saudi minister al-Jubeir, who reportedly dined with his counterpart Kerry that evening, is said to be undecided whether the Kingdom wants 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 particularly notable at COP27, where the host country itself announced a deal to sell gas to Europe in exchange 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 previous year. The United Arab Emirates, the petrostate that will host next year’s COP28 summit, had the most countries – 70 official delegates.

What Saudi Arabia and some other fossil fuel-dependent countries at the summit want to discuss is how they can keep producing oil and gas. The focus should be on reducing emissions, not the sector, they argue.

“You can achieve carbon neutrality while producing fossil fuels, and we are proving it in Saudi Arabia,” al-Jubeir said in an interview.

The Saudi event brought together the president of TotalEnergies, Patrick Pouyanné, and Amin Nasser, managing director of the public company Saudi Aramco. Nasser cited tree planting, carbon capture technology, gas-derived hydrogen fuel and a “circular carbon economy,” or recycling, as climate solutions.

Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs © Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Held alongside COP27, Friday’s ‘decarbonization day’ 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? »

Stu Jones of Bechtel told the audience that COP27 was the first that “international oil companies have been invited to attend. . . This acknowledges the fact that the [integrated oil companies] have an important role to play in decarbonizing and reducing emissions”. Many had promised to support the goals of the Paris Agreement, he added.

“I have attended eight COPs and have never seen such blatant promotion of oil and gas from a presidency before,” said David Tong of Oil Change International. “There is no legitimacy in a COP presidency giving a big platform to big polluters without even asking them tough questions.”

Egypt’s COP27 ambassador Wael Aboulmagd said he did not have exact figures on which lobbyists attended, but insisted speakers at the ‘decarbonisation day’ had been vetted for ensure that they had demonstrated real action.

Leaders of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum and OPEC will make official statements at the UN summit next week, alongside world leaders, heads of nonprofit organizations and intergovernmental groups.

Patrick Pouyanné, president of TotalEnergies: “We are investing massively in gas, because gas is a transition fuel” © Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

“I don’t think we can continue to deal with such an overwhelming presence,” said Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris Agreement. “They have so much money to do PR. . . They come when they see it’s really bad [for the industry].”

The gas industry lobby was a ‘huge problem’, said Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former climate minister who last week launched a UN-commissioned report on how to tackle corporate greenwashing .

Among the contentious issues at COP27 is whether gas can be considered a “transitional” fuel, or an intermediate step as the use of coal is phased out. It is composed primarily of methane, which has 80 times the warming power of carbon, but has a shorter lifespan.

“We are investing heavily in gas, because gas is a transition fuel,” TotalEnergies’ Pouyanne said at the Saudi summit.

A few days before the start of the COP, the Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Tarek El Molla, declared that gas “will continue to play a key role in the future energy mix”.

Patricia Espinosa speaking at COP26 in 2021 © Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Patricia Espinosa, the Mexican diplomat who left her post as UN climate chief this year, said generalizations were of no use because countries had specific needs and resources. If countries thought the new gas was essential, they should set out a clear plan to move away from it in the longer term, she said.

“That’s what we don’t see… 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 the COP next week, which analysts fear will be swayed by fossil fuel interests seeking to delay more ambitious climate action.

People familiar with the talks said countries like China and Saudi Arabia wanted to limit a “work program” on how the countries would work together to cut emissions faster by 2030.

Addressing disappointment with US leaders over raising capital for clean energy shifts in poorer countries, US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said “corporate America” ​​had dampened ambition.

“The fossil fuel industry runs a very complex and elaborate operation to attack climate action, usually hiding its hand behind front groups” since publicly traded companies “don’t want to own their behavior,” he said. declared. “It’s a massive political influence operation – it’s very powerful.”

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