The delicious irony of a fossil-fuel honcho heading COP28 | Mint

The delicious irony of a fossil-fuel honcho heading COP28

Sultan al-Jaber, president of COP28, on the opening day of the climate conference in Dubai on Thursday (Photo: Bloomberg)
Sultan al-Jaber, president of COP28, on the opening day of the climate conference in Dubai on Thursday (Photo: Bloomberg)

Summary

  • Sultan al-Jaber, president of COP28, is also CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. But is there any merit in seeing in this a betrayal of the fight against climate change?

Sultan al-Jaber, president of COP28, is an interesting personality. The PhD in economics was chosen by the country hosting COP28, the United Arab Emirates, to head the conference. He happens to be the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, one of the world's largest fossil-fuel companies. Many have seen in these dual assignments an irreconcilable conflict of interest. He has also been accused of using the climate summit to strike oil deals on the side, a charge he has denied.

But is there any merit in seeing in this a betrayal of the fight against climate change? Only a theological objection to fossil fuels would justify such a stance. The climate summit is about the transition away from fossil fuels, indeed, about accelerating it, while continuing to use these essential fuels. We may recall that vocal green champion Germany did not hesitate to burn lignite, the dirtiest form of coal, to compensate for missing out on Russian gas in the wake of the Ukraine war.

Human-induced climate change is real, and has been wreaking havoc across the world. Developing countries are its worst victims, since they have the fewest resources to combat it. They are also the countries least responsible for the historical accumulation of 2,400 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere since the mid-nineteenth century. It is this accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that traps heat on Earth, disrupting historical patterns of ocean currents and winds, and polar-ice formation.

The developing countries’ current contribution to ongoing global emissions remains small as well. In aggregate terms, India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But on a per capita basis, South Asians emit just over 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per year and Africans about 0.8 tonnes, while North Americans emit 17 tonnes a head per year, and Europeans around 8 tonnes. (This data is from the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

At the first ever UN-sponsored global conference on the environment at Stockholm in 1972, India’s then prime minister Indira Gandhi said poverty was the greatest polluter. That was no rhetorical flourish, and remains true to this day. Growing out of poverty comes with increased energy use.

Now, the share of renewable energy in overall energy output has been rising. Just in power generation, the share of renewables is slated to rise to 35% by 2025 according to an optimistic projection by the International Energy Agency, while the share of renewables in overall primary energy is far lower.

The world would already have switched entirely to renewables and other non-fossil sources of energy if it were a simple matter of will. But there are financial and technological constraints, too, including those relating to storage of the intermittent power produced by renewables. India and other developing countries cannot afford to wait for such constraints to be overcome to pursue growth and improve living standards.

This means such countries will have to use fossil fuels in significant quantities to power their growth, even as they invest in non-fossil sources of energy. India will continue to rely on domestic coal for a significant share of its power generation in the near and medium term. Ideally, power generation should be abundant enough and reliable enough to make electricity the preferred fuel for cooking and do away with imported hydrocarbons. But for transportation, and to fuel some distributed power generation capacity, India will have to rely on oil and gas. This is the reality.

Since India does not have sufficient domestic oil and gas resources to meet more than a fifth of its requirements of these hydrocarbons, it will have to import these from countries like the UAE.

Indian representatives will naturally discuss access to inexpensive oil and gas with their counterparts from oil-exporting countries and try to obtain the most favourable terms. The ongoing COP28 offers a convenient forum for such huddles.

In any case, phasing out fossil fuels is a long-term goal, and will not prevent global warming from breaching tipping points – such as the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – before it is completed. The immediate challenge is to remove CO2 from the air on a large enough scale to halt further warming. This calls for a discourse on the chemistry and industrial processes needed to mine CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products, making the exercise a positive externality. Such a discourse would not be at odds with the ongoing use of fossil fuels.

The goal of the climate summit is to slow down and reverse global warming, which is not identical with excommunicating fossil fuels from the civilised world. Excommunication after all is found in theology, not rational practice.

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