A major oil exporter is hosting a UN climate summit. Opinions are divided

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Abu Dhabi, UAE

This year’s COP28 climate summit is mired in controversy, held in one of the world’s biggest oil exporting nations – the United Arab Emirates – and headed by one of the most prominent faces in its oil industry.

Environmental activists have cried foul, arguing that the climate debate has been hijacked by the fossil fuel lobby to protect the profit-maximizing agendas of petrostates.

The UAE’s involvement has sparked a discussion on whether there’s a place in the climate space for countries that rely primarily on fossil fuel exports for their income. And opinions are split.

Sultan Al Jaber, who will preside over the November summit, wears two very prominent hats in the UAE. Aside from being the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), he is also the UAE’s climate envoy, tasked with spearheading its energy policy. He took on the climate portfolio over a decade before becoming a top oil executive, helping launch the state’s clean energy company Masdar in 2006 and bringing the International Renewable Energy Agency’s headquarters to Abu Dhabi in 2009.

The message the UAE is sending is that both fossil fuels and renewable energy must be part of the global energy mix, and that one does not have to replace the other.

It has argued that given the projected growth in global energy demand, both clean and dirty energy will be needed to power the world, and a hasty transition away from oil and gas could have a detrimental effect on the global economy.

“Recent events have shown that unplugging the current energy system before we have built a sufficiently robust alternative puts both economic and climate progress at risk – and calls into question whether we can ensure a just transition that is equitable to all,” Al Jaber wrote last year in an opinion piece for Project Syndicate.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a nearly 50% increase in global energy use by 2050, with oil and gas remaining the most-consumed sources of energy.

Tom Evans, a policy adviser at the European climate change think tank E3G, told CNN that Al Jaber’s appointment raises questions about the credibility of the UAE’s COP28 presidency. “At face value, the head of a national oil company is obviously facing a massive conflict of interest,” he said.

Al Jaber’s dual roles are what make him a “terrific choice,” US Climate Envoy John Kerry was cited as saying by the Associated Press on Monday. The company he leads “knows it needs to transition,” Kerry said.

Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on Monday called the UAE’s hosting of the summit a “unique opportunity” at an environmental summit in Abu Dhabi. The UAE has the expertise “to get every sector, particularly those hard to abate, aligned with 1.5,” he said, referring to the climate goal to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

The UAE has touted the mantra of “maximum energy, minimum emissions,” saying that instead of phasing out fossil fuels, it will work on making their extraction cleaner, and reinvest its revenues into renewable energy in an effort to raise its share of the nation’s energy mix. The country is future-proofing its energy sector and will “celebrate” the last barrel of oil it exports, Al Jaber said at an energy summit in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.

Over the past 15 years, the UAE has invested $40 billion in renewable energy and clean technology globally, according to the Atlantic Council think tank. Last year, it entered a pact with the United States to invest another $100 billion in clean energy. Al Jaber on Saturday called for a tripling of renewable energy output around the world and twice as much money for adaptation in the global south.

But that’s not enough, climate experts say.

“Fossil fuel profits are most certainly not powering investments in clean energy,” Assaad Razzouk, a clean energy analyst in Singapore, told CNN. “Just look at the spending of oil and gas companies and how that’s allocated,” Razzouk said. Companies like ADNOC and Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil company need to stop investing in oil and gas and spend much more on renewables if they are serious about the transition to clean energy, he added.

Global campaigner Corporate Accountability in November described the presence of oil lobbyists at climate summits as “a rise in the influence of the fossil fuel industry at the climate talks that are already rife with accusations of civil society censorship and corporate influence.”

Climate experts say the UAE’s approach of expanding the use of renewables while continuing to extract fossil fuels defies its own commitments. COP28 didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.

“The Glasgow Climate Pact agreed at COP26 in 2021 by all countries, including the UAE, calls for a cut of 45% in carbon emissions by 2030,” Mark Maslin, a professor working on climate change at University College London, told CNN. “This can only be achieved if there is no new investment in fossil fuels and the use of all fossil fuels is phased out as soon as possible.”

“So it does not make any sense to invest in fossil fuels when the world needs to be net zero emissions before 2050,” he added.

But the UAE is doing quite the opposite.

One of the few producers in the OPEC oil cartel with the capacity to ramp up production on short notice, the UAE has repeatedly called for more investment in the oil sector to meet global demand, and has embarked on a project to further increase its own capacity. In November, it brought forward its oil production expansion to 2027 instead of 2030, when it will be producing up to 5 million barrels per day (bpd) from about 4 million.

The UAE’s approach has been pragmatic, said Amena Bakr, chief OPEC correspondent at Energy Intelligence, adding that Russia’s war on Ukraine led nations to prioritize energy security and realize that the world couldn’t do away with oil and gas so soon.

“Renewable energy still cannot meet base-load energy demand – that’s a fact,” she told CNN.

For Razzouk, the clean energy analyst, the conflict has “incontrovertibly shown the folly of relying on imported fossil fuels, and the national security risks this entailed.”

Iran hangs British citizen on charges of espionage and corruption

A dual British-Iranian citizen was hanged by Iran on charges of espionage and corruption, a state-affiliated media outlet reported Saturday, the latest in a string of executions carried out by a regime grappling with unprecedented protests across the country. Alireza Akbari was executed for crimes including “corruption on earth,” according to the Iranian judiciary-affiliated outlet Mizan. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was “appalled by the execution.” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Saturday afternoon that the British government planned to sanction Iran’s Prosecutor General to underline “our disgust at Alireza Akbari’s execution.”

  • Background: Akbari previously served as Iran’s deputy defense minister and was the head of the Strategic Research Institute. He was charged with working as a spy for MI6, the British intelligence agency, and reportedly paid more than $2 million, Iranian state media reported Saturday. He allegedly provided information to foreign officials about 178 Iranian figures, including the country’s chief nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed by a remote-controlled machine gun operating out of a car in 2020. Iran’s top officials accused Israel of masterminding the plot at the time, without providing evidence.
  • Why it matters: Though Iran does not recognize dual nationality, the execution of an individual holding British citizenship will likely further fuel tensions between Tehran and Western nations, which have been critical of the regime’s response to anti-government demonstrations that began in September last year. Iran has long ranked among the world’s top executioners, and Akbari is one of three individuals to receive a death sentence in the first weeks of 2023.

More than 80,000 turn out for Tel Aviv protest against Netanyahu government

Despite pouring rain, tens of thousands of people protested in Tel Aviv Saturday night against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government’s proposed changes to the judicial system. Others took to the streets in Jerusalem for parallel protests. Attendees held signs comparing Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and saying Israel was turning into the likes of semi-democratic Hungary and theocratic Iran.

  • Background: The proposed changes, announced last week by Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin, would seek to reform Supreme Court nominations via a review committee and enable parliament to overturn Supreme Court rulings.
  • Why it matters: Protesters told CNN they fear for Israel’s future and that they came out to send a message to Netanyahu that the public wouldn’t stand for what they see as the dismantling of Israeli democracy. Esther Hayut, the president of Israel’s Supreme Court, on Thursday attacked the proposed changes as “an unbridled attack on the legal system” and said they were “designed to force a fatal blow on the independence of the judicial system.”

Syria sets conditions for rapprochement with Turkey

Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said on Saturday that Turkey would have to end its military presence in his country to achieve a full rapprochement, Reuters reported. “We cannot talk about resuming normal ties with Turkey without removing the occupation, without ending terrorism and returning the relations to the state that they were based on the first place,” he said after meeting his Iranian counterpart in Damascus.

  • Background: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that he could meet his Syrian counterpart early in February. Syria has made no official comment on the timing of any such meeting, which would mark the highest-level talks between Ankara and Damascus since the Syrian war began in 2011.
  • Why it matters: Turkey has been a major backer of the political and armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the 12-year conflict in Syria, and has sent its own troops into swathes of the country’s north. But Ankara may be seeking a green light from the Syrian regime and its Russian ally to launch a military operation against Kurdish groups in northern Syria.

The UAE will invest $30 billion in South Korea, Reuters cited South Korea’s presidential office as saying on Sunday. The decision was announced as South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol met his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi during a four-day visit. Yoon’s press secretary said the investment will be directed at nuclear power, defense, hydrogen and solar energy industries, among others.

Saudi Arabia: #Naturalizing_children_of_female_citizens

Saudis on Twitter have been discussing a change in the kingdom’s citizenship law that was misinterpreted by some as easing the process of naturalization for the children of Saudi women.

In most Arab countries, only men can pass on citizenship to their children automatically, which women’s rights activists have campaigned for decades to change. In Saudi Arabia, the children of Saudi women married to foreigners don’t get Saudi citizenship at birth but have the right to apply for it after the age of 18 if they meet certain conditions.

The change in the Saudi citizenship law last week moved the authority to grant citizenship from the interior minister to the prime minister, but didn’t change the rules to obtain citizenship.

Some regional news outlets falsely reported that the changes eased the rules of naturalization, prompting the topic to trend on Twitter in Saudi Arabia, with many praising the move and others warning of the demographic imbalance it could cause. The inaccurate reporting however sparked a debate on the topic, with many calling on the government to allow women to pass on citizenship to their children at birth.

“I support this move because I consider the Saudi woman to be equal to the Saudi man, with all the rights and obligations as those Saudi men who marry foreign women and naturalize their children,” Saudi writer Mohammed Alkhalid said in a video posted on Twitter.

Oil rich Gulf Arab countries have very strict naturalization procedures. Of the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, four have a majority expatriate population, with citizens accounting for less than 20% of the population in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Animal rights activists hold a protest demanding the end of animal killing and the improvement of animal shelter conditions in Ankara, Turkey on Sunday.

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