The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Fossil fuel lobbyists have done a bang-up job in ensuring that their interests are protected.

The COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates has emerged as a battleground for competing interests, underscored by a remarkable surge in fossil fuel lobbyists. The Kick Big Polluters Out coalition’s report highlights a record 2,456 lobbyists at the summit, a noticeable uptick from prior years. This influx, dwarfing the attendance of many national delegations, has fueled debates on the fossil fuel sector’s role in sculpting global climate strategies.

While seemingly subtle, the distinction between a phase-down versus a phase-out of fossil fuels bears significant implications. A phase-down implies a consensus to curtail dependency on these energy sources, transitioning to eco-friendly alternatives like wind or solar, yet maintaining a role for fossil fuels amid ongoing climate change efforts. In contrast, a phase-out calls for an outright halt to burning fossil fuels for energy, a stance that has historically garnered tepid support, especially from nations reliant on oil and gas revenues.

Key fossil fuel producers, such as the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, have staunchly rebuffed complete fossil fuel elimination. The Saudi Energy Minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman, on December 4, vociferously dismissed any reduction efforts in an interview with Bloomberg TV, echoing the persistent resistance from influential countries to decrease or halt fossil fuel consumption. Conversely, earlier this year, UAE Climate Change and Environment Minister Mariam Almheiri advocated for phasing out emissions rather than ceasing oil, gas, and coal use. Speaking to Reuters, Almheiri recognized that despite the swift progress of renewable energy, a total switch from fossil fuels isn’t yet viable. She advocated for a just and sensible transition that acknowledges the diverse capabilities of different nations. A UN Environment Programme report from November disclosed that the UAE’s state oil firm, ADNOC, plans a significant $150 billion investment to augment its oil production by 2027.

As COP28 reached its midway point, the staggering presence of nearly 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists has drawn scrutiny and concern from environmental groups. The Kick Big Polluters Out coalition’s analysis pointed out that the lobbyists’ delegation size was surpassed only by Brazil and the UAE, leading to claims by campaigners that such representation is indefensible, indicative of an industry maneuver to put their interests above those of communities most affected by pollution.

Detractors argue that the multitude of fossil fuel lobbyists could undermine the climate negotiations’ integrity. However, figures like former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz suggest that including Big Oil in COP28 is beneficial. This divide mirrors larger discussions regarding the fossil fuel industry’s role in climate agreements and the pressing need for decisive climate action.

In anticipation of COP28, the International Energy Agency declared that the oil and gas industry is facing a “moment of truth” in its contribution to the energy system amidst the escalating climate crisis. The influx of lobbyists adds intricacy to this pivotal moment, with stakeholders wrestling with the industry’s significant influence on climate policy formulation.

This spike in lobbying occurs at a pivotal time in discussions on the future of fossil fuels. The push for a complete phase-out, driven by their central contribution to the climate crisis, encounters resistance. Russia has overtly opposed the inclusion of “phase-out” language in the final accord, while the UAE shows a leaning toward a “phase-down” strategy. This dichotomy poses a considerable obstacle to achieving a unified approach to climate policies.

At the core of the talks is the choice between “phase-out” and “phase-down” strategies. Phase-out proponents argue for a total discontinuation of fossil fuels, whereas phase-down supporters endorse a measured reduction in use. The delineation between “abated” and “unabated” fossil fuels—referring to those used with or without significant emission cuts, respectively—illustrates the nuanced negotiations underway at COP28.

Notwithstanding these charged debates, COP28 has heralded significant moves, such as a landmark agreement to support the world’s climate-vulnerable nations and commitments by almost 120 governments to boost renewable energy capacity by 2030. These actions signal a collective shift toward clean, sustainable energy sources, though the shadow cast by fossil fuel lobbyists endures as a potent concern.

The unprecedented assembly of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28 has sparked a fiery discourse on their sway in climate deliberations. As stakeholders navigate the contrasting views on the future of fossil fuels, the “phase-out” versus “phase-down” choices and the “abated” versus “unabated” fuels debate underscore the challenge of consensus. While breakthrough deals and decarbonization pledges hint at progress, the fossil fuel lobby’s extensive involvement poses probing questions about the guiding priorities in global climate policy. As COP28 advances, the global community awaits decisive, meaningful measures to tackle the pressing climate crisis.

Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs. Syed was a Research Assistant at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Syed holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in International Relations from Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.