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The setting of the UN climate conference stirs controversy

MILES PARKS, HOST:

One-point-five degrees Celsius - scientists cite that number over and over when talking about climate change. It's the threshold by which temperatures should not increase on a rapidly warming planet without risking things like mass extinctions and catastrophic sea-level rise. And the main driver of these rising temperatures are greenhouse gases, the pollution emitted from burning fossil fuels like oil and gas. Every year, world leaders gather at the Conference of the Parties, or COP, to devise solutions to what amounts to a growing existential crisis for humankind.

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: We are miles from the goals of the Paris Agreement and minutes to midnight for the 1.5-degree limit. But it is not too late. We can - you can - prevent planetary crash and burn.

PARKS: That's the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.

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GUTERRES: The science is clear. The 1.5-degree limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning of fossil fuels - not reduce, not abate - phase out with a clear time frame aligned with 1.5 degrees.

PARKS: But that goal is slipping.

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SULTAN AL JABER: Be flexible. Find common ground. Come forward with solutions and achieve consensus. And never lose sight of our North Star of 1.5.

PARKS: That's Sultan Al Jaber, the president of this year's climate talks, speaking at the opening of the climate summit his country is hosting. Al Jaber leads one of the Middle East's biggest renewable companies, but he's also the CEO of one of the biggest oil companies in the world, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. He's made clear that oil producers should have a seat at the table this year.

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AL JABER: We must look for ways and ensure the inclusion of the role of fossil fuels.

PARKS: He also had this to say.

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AL JABER: And let history reflect the fact that this is the presidency that made a bold choice to proactively engage with oil and gas companies.

PARKS: Coming near the end of what will probably be the hottest year in human history makes COP28 all the more important, but it's being held in one of the biggest oil-producing countries in the world and being led by a man who runs one of the biggest oil companies in the world, which has left a lot of climate change advocates feeling skeptical about the ability to achieve much-needed solutions. NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy is in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates at COP28. Hi, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi.

PARKS: So you've been living in the Gulf for over a decade now, and you're covering this year's summit in Dubai. Can you tell us a little bit about how these oil-producing countries view climate change?

BATRAWY: Sure. So I'm at the summit this year, and I can tell you it's already - it's December, and it is hot outside. It's warm. I mean, not so hot that you can't be outside, but it's definitely warm. And so they understand very well that climate change impacts them here and that the science shows that if we keep warming the average temperatures around the world, it's actually going to become so hot that you cannot live here at all.

PARKS: Wow.

BATRAWY: And already in the summers, I can tell you, for six months out of the year or more, we are living in air-conditioned bubbles to survive the heat and the humidity here. And the extreme weather also impacts the Gulf countries. There's monsoons. There's flooding. There's problems with food security and not having enough, you know, agricultural land. So they know that this is a problem for them.

However, there's also another existential problem for them, which is that their economies rely on oil and gas. And what that oil and gas does is it buys domestic stability. It keeps the Gulf publics - the Gulf citizens - placated and having really great benefits with health care, education, all kinds of, you know, modern cities and all of that. But it also buys these Gulf Arab countries a lot of international clout. So if the world stops using this oil and gas, this is going to directly impact their economies and maybe even their political stability. At the same time, they know the world is warming and that they're impacted. So they are caught in this dilemma.

PARKS: Right. So what are the UAE and then the world's biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia - what are they doing about climate change?

BATRAWY: The first thing they're trying to do is they are racing to diversify their economies away from relying on oil and gas. They know that the world is moving away from oil and gas, and they know that that means, like, it could spell the end of their economy. So they're investing heavily in renewable energy. They want to be part of the nuclear technology, solar, wind farms, electric vehicles, all of that. They're investing heavily. Their oil and gas money is going towards these kinds of companies and that kind of technology. They're also trying to push for technologies, though, that aren't really working well yet or haven't become affordable, like carbon capture. So basically, you can keep burning oil and gas and somehow capture that carbon. And I don't know that that exists yet.

And the thing is, the world is still demanding more of their oil and gas. Like, we know that the U.S., the Biden administration, has pressured and asked Gulf Arab countries to pump more oil to keep prices low for American consumers. We know that Europe is turning to countries like Qatar for its gas needs after turning away from Russia due to the Ukraine war. And then you also have countries like China - they are the biggest client of oil and gas from this part of the world. So while the UAE and Saudi Arabia have joined this net zero club of countries that are, you know, saying they're going to cut emissions, it's only within their borders, and they still have every intention to keep pumping that oil and gas to be burned in other countries.

PARKS: Well, let me ask about one of the most interesting storylines of COP28 - it's that it's being led by Sultan Al Jaber. We heard about him earlier. He's the man presiding over the talks this year, but he also runs one of the largest oil companies in the world. How does that affect the talks this year?

BATRAWY: Yeah, I mean, this is a very powerful man. He has many titles. He's the head of the state oil company ADNOC in the UAE. He's also the head of a major renewables company here called Masdar. And he's a minister, and now he's the COP28 president. So what all of that means is that on the one hand, he can cut through a lot of bureaucracy. This is a small country of just 1.3 million citizens, and it's led by a hereditary ruling family. So they can quickly push changes in policies without backlash or the kind of red tape and state and federal laws that you would find in the U.S., for example.

But here are some of the things he has said and hasn't said about his role. For example, Al Jaber has not voiced public support for a phase out of oil and gas. If anything, as the CEO of ADNOC, he's promoting spending billions of dollars on new oil and gas investments and exploration, just like Saudi Aramco is doing. And what he has said, though, is that a phase down of these fossil fuels is inevitable and necessary. But he hasn't given a timeline. He hasn't said when that should happen by. And he's also said you cannot unplug the world from the current energy system until you build a new one. And so that's why you're seeing the UAE spending a lot of money in renewables and still in oil and gas.

PARKS: OK. And so as host of this year's talks, what are the UAE's goals here?

BATRAWY: Well, they definitely want a historic summit. They want to show that, you know, this this was something tangible. They've already pledged $100 million to something called a loss and damage fund that's supposed to help developing countries adapt to climate change. And they're committing huge sums towards renewable technology and financing. And don't forget, there's huge windfall from this energy transition. It impacts every industry. So they want to be part of that.

But the UAE and other oil producers would also probably like to steer these talks in a way that gives them a bigger say at the table around the language about phasing out or phasing down fossil fuels. And these U.N. talks, they adopt positions based on consensus. So it's not just the UAE that can influence these talks. Countries like China also can. But for a pretty small country like the UAE, pledging net zero, hosting these talks, it helps them secure a voice and frame the message at these climate summits.

And let's return to the science. The U.N. experts have said time is running out. We are getting further and further away from reaching that 1.5-degree threshold. And to do that, we have to cut carbon emissions by almost half of their current levels by 2030, and you're not going to get there by burning more oil and gas. So I think Gulf states understand that, but the world's economies are still demanding their oil and gas. And don't forget, their economies need that oil and gas revenue.

PARKS: Yeah, it is a - just a crazy contradiction. NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy in Dubai, thank you.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Miles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.