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Anger at record fossil fuel attendees at Cop28: ‘You don’t bring arsonists to a firefighting convention’

Climate campaigners have expressed their anger at a record number of delegates with links to fossil fuel producers attending the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai.

It has raised questions over the influence of oil and gas producers at this year’s summit amid a crucial debate on how and when to end fossil fuels globally. Climate Action Network (CAN), the world’s largest coalition of climate NGOs, said “You don’t bring arsonists to a firefighting convention”, while some activists called it akin to “dining with the devil”. Others accused the UAE presidency of the summit of “rolling out the red carpet” for the fossil fuels industry.

At least 2,456 people connected to the coal, oil and gas industries have registered for the summit in Dubai, according to an analysis by the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition of green groups. That is almost four times the number registered for Cop27 in Egypt last year, itself a record number. The figure is larger than the total attendees from the 10 nations seen as most vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis.

The report came as delegates wrangle over how and when to reduce and end the use of fossil fuels responsible for the climate crisis, the most crucial discussion of this year’s climate summit taking place after the hottest year on record.

A separate study released at the same time said global carbon emissions from fossil fuels will reach record levels again in 2023. The report from the Global Carbon Project said the world is on track to burn more coal, oil and gas in 2023 than it did in 2022, pumping 1.1 per cent more planet-heating carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

A number of activist groups expressed their anger by holding demonstrations against the involvement of those connected to the oil and gas industries, chanting for a phase out of fossil fuels.

“The sheer number of fossil fuel lobbyists at climate talks that could determine our future is beyond justification,” Joseph Sikulu, the Pacific managing director for climate advocacy group 350.org, said. “It took 10 years of relentless campaigning to even get a mention of fossil fuels in the carbon text, and since Glasgow [Cop26] we have been playing a game of linguistic gymnasts over phrases such as ‘phase out’, ‘phase down’ or ‘unabated’, or whatever language the polluters use to get around accountability.

“We come here to fight for our survival ... This poisoning of the process needs to end, we will not let oil and gas influence the future of the Pacific this heavily,” he added.

A person holds a sign reading ‘Phase out fossil fuels now!’ during a demonstration for a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels at Cop28 (AP)
A person holds a sign reading ‘Phase out fossil fuels now!’ during a demonstration for a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels at Cop28 (AP)

Vanessa Nakate, the Ugandan climate activist, said: “We ask governments, legislators and the courts to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the lives it endangers... We need to not only address the symptoms of the climate crisis but also the root cause, and that is the banning of fossil fuels.

“All the flashy announcements will mean little if countries continue to expound their development,” she added.

Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan, of CAN, said: “The window to preserve a liveable planet is rapidly closing. At the same time, ever greater numbers of big polluters are allowed to roam around this summit, which communities on the frontlines cannot afford to have failed again.”

“To share seats with the big polluters in climate change conversations is to dine with the devil,” Ogunlade Olamide Martins, program manager at Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa, said. “This unholy matrimony will only endorse [a] ‘conflict of interest’ and further facilitate the silence of honest agitation.”

This year, record wildfires, droughts, floods and heatwaves have wreaked havoc around the world. Climate groups say that anything that takes the focus away from the strongest possible outcome for the summit is a concern.

The president of Cop28, Sultan al-Jaber, who is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company was forced into defending his views on Monday, insisting that he and the UAE “very much respect science”, as he sought to quell a backlash over comments questioning the need to phase out fossil fuels.

To share seats with the big polluters in climate change conversations is to dine with the devil. This unholy matrimony will only endorse ‘conflict of interest’ and further facilitate the silence of honest agitation

Ogunlade Olamide Martins, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

During an online event last month, Mr Jaber suggested that there was “no science” behind requiring the end of fossil fuels in order to limit temperature rise to 1.5C, a key aim in the fight against the climate crisis.

“We fully understand the urgency behind this matter,” he said. “I have always been very clear on the fact that we are making sure that everything we do is centred around the science,” Mr Jaber added. “We did not in any way underestimate or undermine the task at hand.”

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, who was also present at the online event, made her first comment on the row on Tuesday, not mentioning Mr Jaber. “A successful Cop28 is not about a single individual or nation, but the collective will and concerted efforts of all countries in these negotiations ... The science compels: phase out fossil fuels rapidly, accelerate renewable energy adoption, and radically scale up finance.”

As participation in climate summits has grown in recent years, the number of industry executives has also risen, prompting calls from climate groups to protect the UN’s climate negotiations by establishing clear conflict-of-interest policies and accountability measures.

Countries collectively representing almost 70 per cent of the world’s population have requested that any conflicts of interest be addressed.

While more and more climate groups, volunteers and civil society members are also joining – this year’s climate conference is the largest in terms of total participation – their presence is somewhat muted in the tightly secured venue where space for protestors is limited and subject to the need for permission.

On Sunday, former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, raised concerns over the lack of participation from women at the climate negotiations.

Sven Harmeling, global policy lead at CARE Climate Justice Centre, said that those most severely impacted by the climate crisis face being sidelined. “Cop28 has rolled out the red carpet for fossil fuel lobbyists, while women and girls facing the worst impacts of climate change are being sidelined,” he said.