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Business News/ Special Report / Welcome to COP28, the U.N. Climate Conference Hosted by an Oil Giant
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Welcome to COP28, the U.N. Climate Conference Hosted by an Oil Giant

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The United Arab Emirates, site of the summit, is preparing to increase oil production.

The United Arab Emirates is hosting the annual United Nations climate meeting in Dubai. Premium
The United Arab Emirates is hosting the annual United Nations climate meeting in Dubai.

Dubai, a desert city known for private jets, giant yachts and other symbols of carbon-heavy high living, is an awkward location for a conference on climate change. It’s hardly a surprise that the man in charge also runs the national oil company.

Hosting the United Nations’ annual climate confab—known as COP28—is the latest step in the United Arab Emirates’ bid to establish itself as a global power broker. The gambit is drawing attention to the country’s Jekyll-and-Hyde energy strategy.

The U.A.E. is preparing to increase production of the oil and gas that made it rich, despite calls for it to cut fossil fuel use by the thousands of attendees descending on the city for the meeting that begins Thursday. The country is also pitching itself as a champion of renewable energy.

It says there’s no contradiction. The world will need oil and gas for decades, and the U.A.E. says its fuels are the greenest around. It says it uses renewable energy to power some of its oil-and-gas production and is investing in carbon-capture technology.

This is a hard sell. Climate Action Tracker, a research group, says it is impossible for the U.A.E. to meet its target for cutting emissions if it increases oil production as planned. State-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., or Adnoc, last year said it would raise its production capacity to 5 million barrels a day by 2027, up from 4 million barrels in 2020. A fraction of its $150 billion investment plan is slated for green projects.

At the center of it all is Sultan al-Jaber, the chief executive of Adnoc as well as chairman of Masdar, the U.A.E.’s renewable energy company. He is also running the climate conference, a post that has drawn criticism that he will steer negotiations away from ambitious commitments to end fossil-fuel use.

Leaked briefing notes published by the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting this week showed that the COP28 organizing team planned to promote deals for Adnoc and Masdar in meetings ahead of the conference with countries planning to attend. A spokesperson for COP28 said the documents were “inaccurate" and weren’t used in meetings.

Climate-advocacy groups such as Oil Change International are skeptical. Romain Ioualalen, the organization’s global policy lead, said Jaber could use his position at the conference to promote carbon-capture technology, a key part of Adnoc’s climate strategy. The technology is untested on a scale that would make a dent in global emissions, though the International Energy Agency says it could do so in the future. At the largest carbon-capture facility in the U.A.E., captured CO2 is used to squeeze more oil from wells.

“His company’s investments are being reflected in his approach to the negotiations and what he’s pushing as potential outcomes," Ioualalen said.

Jaber has declared that a “phase down" of fossil fuels is inevitable, but sometimes qualifies that by referring to “unabated" fossil fuels—phrasing widely interpreted as blessing oil and gas that is coupled with carbon capture.

To defenders, the U.A.E. provides a needed resource. “Who is actually producing the carbon and the pollution in the world? It is the consumers of our oil," said Turki Al-Shehri, managing director at Saudi Arabia’s National Maritime Academy.

The U.A.E. may be preparing to pump more urgently now because it knows that demand could fall, said Ben Cahill, an expert on energy security and climate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.A.E. has definitely shifted to more of a produce-now mentality," he said.

The rebound in oil prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an influx of new residents ignited a building boom in Dubai, which was already awash in gleaming towers and sprawling shopping malls. As many as 500,000 Russians flooded in after the invasion of Ukraine, following an earlier stream of Chinese escaping Beijing’s harsh Covid-19 policies. Dubai home prices are up 19% this year through October, according to CBRE Group.

Projects in the works include a five-story cruise ship that is planned to house a Michelin-starred restaurant and an Armani-branded club, and is set to be docked by the Ain Dubai, a towering Ferris wheel—twice the height of the London Eye—that has been closed for more than a year. In neighboring Ras Al Khaimah, the country’s first casino is being developed by Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts, part of a $3.9 billion resort on a man-made peninsula.

Climate change is evident in the region, already one of the hottest on earth. Temperatures in the Middle East are rising faster than the global average, and highs above 120 degrees Fahrenheit can endanger the region’s army of migrant workers, who make up most of the U.A.E.’s population of over nine million people. The U.A.E. has rules restricting outdoor labor at the hottest times in summer.

Hosting a conference that brings in thousands of people helps the U.A.E. sell itself as a business and tourist destination of the future.

Part of that pitch is Masdar, which says it has invested in renewable-energy projects around the world with a combined capacity of 20 gigawatts, and wants to hit 100 gigawatts by 2030. One solar project, located outside of Abu Dhabi, will power nearly 200,000 homes.

Jaber wrote an academic study of foreign direct investment in the U.A.E. economy and is among an influential corps of largely Western-educated executives and technocrats assigned to overhaul the country’s institutions. In addition to his corporate titles, he is the U.A.E.’s minister of industry and advanced technology.

Cahill said Jaber shook up Adnoc, which had been a “sleepy, passive company," dependent on foreign partners. He said, however, that the company should do more to back up green slogans such as “Maximum Energy. Minimum Emissions."

Adnoc in July brought forward its net-zero emissions target to 2045 from 2050, but it doesn’t provide detailed annual data to track its progress. It said would cut the “carbon intensity" of its operations by 25% by 2030, compared with 2019, without disclosing the 2019 figure. Unlike major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, it doesn’t estimate “Scope 3" emissions from the burning of its products—the bulk of the industry’s carbon footprint. An Adnoc spokesperson said the company will publish a sustainability report next year, without giving more details.

Some see COP28 as an opportunity for the U.A.E. to show its promises aren’t just talk. Ioualalen of Oil Change International even sees potential advantages in the petrostate setting: The U.A.E. might find it easier than a European country to persuade other oil producers to cut emissions.

“We’ll have to judge them on what they actually do," he said. “But from what we’ve seen, we’re quite worried about the direction of travel."

Write to Ed Ballard at ed.ballard@wsj.com and Anna Hirtenstein at anna.hirtenstein@wsj.com

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