The Cop28 president, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, has insisted that he and the UAE “very much respect science”, as he sought to quell a backlash over comments questioning the need to phase out fossil fuels.
During an online event last month, Mr Jaber suggested there was “no science” behind requiring the end of fossil fuels in order to limit temperature rise to 1.5C, a key aim in the fight against the climate crisis.
“We very much believe and respect the science,” he said on Monday, after a number of climate groups and scientists expressed their severe concern at his previous remarks, with one activist saying such “climate denial belongs in the Stone Age”.
Mr Jaber said: “We’ve been very upfront about it and we said clearly and repeatedly that the UAE takes this task [of heading UN climate talks] with humility, and responsibility.”
“We fully understand the urgency behind this matter,” he said. “I have always been very clear on the fact that we are making sure that everything we do is centred around the science,” Mr Jaber added. “We did not in any way underestimate or undermine the task at hand.”
Mr Jaber called the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuels “essential” and said that his previous statement was taken “out of context”. He added that the task needs to be “orderly, fair, just and responsible”.
In response to Mr Jaber’s latest remarks, Cansin Leylim Ilgaz, associate director of global campaign for climate advocacy group 350.org, told The Independent they were “a huge relief”.
“For too long these UN climate conferences have failed to address the main cause of the climate crisis, which has been scientifically proven over and over again to be fossil fuels. Cop28 needs to take its next leap and must recognise that a mere phase-down of fossil fuels is no longer sufficient,” Ms Leylim Ilgaz said.
“To safeguard our planet and its inhabitants, we must embrace a fast, full, fair, and funded phase-out of fossil fuels,” she added.
During the online event on 21 November, alongside former Irish president Mary Robinson, Mr Jaber suggested that a phase-out of oil would not be compatible with sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves”.
Urged by Ms Robinson to commit, as Cop28 host and chief executive of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, to phase out fossil fuels in order to tackle “an absolute crisis that is hurting women and children more than anyone”, Mr Jaber called the suggestion “alarmist”.
“There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C,” he said.
The comments were met with condemnation by climate groups and scientists who branded it “alarming”.
Sir David King, founder and chair of the UK Climate Crisis Advisory Group, said the Cop28 chief’s comments were “incredibly concerning” and said it was “surprising to hear reports of the Cop28 president defend[ing] the use of fossil fuels, and to learn that he is supposedly unaware of the viability of renewable alternatives”.
Christian Aid’s global advocacy lead, Mariana Paoli, said such “climate denial belongs to the Stone Age”.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the branch of the UN tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change, released a report after Mr Jaber’s comments branding the phasing out of fossil fuels “non-negotiable”.
Mr Jaber told the conference he was “quite surprised with the constant and repeated attempts to undermine the work of the Cop28 presidency”.
The hosts previously told The Independent: “The Cop president was unwavering in saying reaching 1.5C involves action across a number of areas and sectors. The Cop president is clear that phasing down and out of fossil fuels is inevitable and that we must keep 1.5C within reach.”
The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Jim Skea, who joined Mr Jaber at the news conference, said the Cop28 president has been “attentive to the science”.
Mr Jaber also sought to lay out the early achievements of the summit, saying: “I believe we have already set a high bar for delivery.”
He flagged the “breakthrough agreement on loss and damage” to help more vulnerable nations deal with the impact of the climate crisis, and also drew attention to the tens of billions of dollars pledged by countries in the first few days of the summit.
“There is real hope and optimism that this is a major inflection point and we cannot miss the opportunity,” Mr Jaber said.
“I am determined to deliver the most ambitious response to the global stocktake,” he said, referring to the first five-yearly UN assessment of where countries stand in tackling the climate crisis.
Mr Jaber has been under fire since he took on the role of Cop28 president while being the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company ADNOC. Activists have said it is like “getting a tobacco company to lead an anti-smoking convention”.
In the run-up to the summit, an investigation by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC alleged that his team was using its position to strike oil deals. The former US vice-president and environmentalist, Al Gore, called the report “utterly appalling”. Mr Jaber denied the accusations, calling them “false. Not true, incorrect, not accurate“.
The climate summit is seeing an unprecedented push for the phasing out of fossil fuels – an issue that has remained a sticking point in climate negotiations for a long time. And after record-breaking temperatures and devastating droughts and wildfires this year, momentum is building for an ambitious deal that calls for an end to oil, coal and gas.
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