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COP28: End fossil-fuel use, says Pope. But UAE energy minister warns, it will send us ‘back to the caves’

04 December 2023

© Albin Hillert

Expo City in Dubai, the venue for COP28

Expo City in Dubai, the venue for COP28

THE Pope and Dr Sultan Al Jaber, the president of COP28, made contrasting interventions over the weekend at the UN climate summit in Dubai.

Pope Francis said that it was wrong for rich countries to try and shift the blame for climate change on to poorer countries. His comments were made in a speech read out by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, because an infection had prevented the Pope from attending.

“It is not the fault of the poor”, he said, “since the almost half of our world that is more needy is responsible for scarcely ten per cent of toxic emissions, while the gap between the opulent few and the masses of the poor has never been so abysmal. The poor are the real victims of what is happening.”

He said that debt relief should be given to poorer nations. “The development of many countries, already burdened by grave economic debt, should not be penalised; instead, we should consider the footprint of a few nations responsible for a deeply troubling ‘ecological debt’ towards many others. It would only be fair to find suitable means of remitting the financial debts that burden different peoples, not least in light of the ecological debt that they are owed.”

He also called for fossil fuels to be phased out — a key focal point of discussions in Dubai. He said that the world needed to make progress on energy efficiency, an increase in renewable energy, and “the elimination of fossil fuels”.

His words were welcomed by the Roman Catholic relief agency CAFOD. Neil Thorns, its director of advocacy, said: “The Pope’s message is very well timed as we move into discussions on a global stock-take. These discussions must be a time for leaders to heed his call — not for a partial change, but a new way of making progress together, and for choosing a culture of life over a culture of death.”

A different tone was adopted by Dr Al Jaber, who, besides being the Energy Minister for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is also the director of the state oil company Adnoc.

He responded to comments made by a former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, a former UN special envoy, at an online meeting to discuss the effect of climate change on women and girls. Mrs Robinson had said: “We’re in an absolute crisis that is hurting women and children more than anyone . . . and it’s because we have not yet committed to phasing out fossil fuel. That is the one decision that COP28 can take, and, in many ways, because you’re head of Adnoc, you could actually take it with more credibility.”

In response, Dr Al Jaber said: “I accepted to come to this meeting to have a sober and mature conversation. I’m not in any way signing up to any discussion that is 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 1.5ºC.” A phase-out of fossil fuels, he said, would not allow sustainable development, “unless you want to take the world back into caves”.

His comments caused concern among some climate scientists. The chief executive of Climate Analytics, Bill Hare, said: “This is an extraordinary, revealing, worrying, and belligerent exchange. ‘Sending us back to caves’ is the oldest of fossil-fuel industry tropes: it’s verging on climate denial.”

Dr Friederike Otto, of Imperial College, London, rejected the claim that fossil fuels were needed for development. Referring to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she said that it “shows that the UN’s sustainable development goals are not achievable by continuing the current fossil-driven high emission economies. There are massive co-benefits that come with changing to a fossil-free world.”

More than 100 countries back a phase-out of fossil fuels; others, such as Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, are opposed. What language is included in the final communiqué from the summit will be a key negotiating point over the coming days.

The former US Vice-President Al Gore, who is attending the meeting, said that setting a fossil-fuel phase-out date would be a historic moment in human history. “If there were a decision here to surprise the world to say, ‘OK we get it now, we’ve made enough money, we will get on with what needs to be done to give young people a sense of hope again, and stop as much as suffering as possible, and start the phase-out of fossil fuels,’ it would be one of the most significant events in the history of humanity,” he said.

The impact of climate change on life-sustaining systems and the part it plays in forced migration was highlighted at the summit over the weekend. In a sermon at an ecumenical service at COP28, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Professor Jerry Pillay, said that Christians were called to care for the earth because it belongs to God.

“Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to work for the good of the earth and the glory of God,” he said. “There will be no justice when the ecosystems no longer can deliver what we all depend on for our life. Migration will increase, and, as a result, there will be more social insecurity, and violent conflicts might escalate due to scarcity of water and land.”

This was echoed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. Speaking at the Faith Pavilion, at COP28, he said: “We need the political, moral, and spiritual leadership of faith leaders to hold negotiators to account,” especially in caring for refugees. “The climate crisis is also a humanitarian crisis. Our collective war on nature is compounding and creating conflict, punishing displaced people, and making solutions to climate change more difficult.

“It is crucial that no one denies, distracts, or shifts their gaze from this crisis, which is why we need all advocates to help us — especially faith leaders. All faiths have a deep sense of solidarity towards refugees at their core; reflected by the work faith communities are doing to help protect displaced people across the world.”

In an effort to deflect criticism of their handling of the talks, including reports that the host country was using the summit to broker oil deals with other countries, the UAE announced that it was committing $30 billion to a new fund with the private-sector investment firms BlackRock, Brookfield, and TPG, to shift markets towards climate investments in the global South.

Most world leaders departed from the summit after the high-level segment concluded at the weekend. The focus now returns to the negotiations between countries to bring new climate-control measures into force.

Joe Ware is a senior climate journalist at Christian Aid.

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