Report from Dubai: Oil CEOs are here, and climate activists don’t like it one bit

Good evening from Dubai,

Everyone began to settle in a bit, as the national leaders left town and the real work of negotiating began in earnest. I got a ton of sleep yesterday and consumed my first bit of caffeine this week (I’m not a regular) to power through the day.

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Climate activists are not happy with fossil fuel CEOs stealing the limelight. Here’s representatives of the Climate Action Network at a presser this morning.

What happened today

Most of the national leaders left town this morning, so the conference security has lessened quite a bit and the pace of big press announcements has slacked off. Al Gore stuck around one more day to tout his Climate Trace data project (more on that below) and for the most part, negotiators really settled into the hard business of…negotiating.

Yesterday the U.N. released its official list of meeting attendees, which lists the name and organization of every single badged person. It’s interesting to peruse. Among the stats:

  • 97,372 registrants. About half have claimed their badges so far.
  • Of that number, 51,695 representatives from 195 countries.
  • 3,972 media staffers from 1,293 organizations.
  • 14,338 observers from 2,158 organizations.

Perhaps the biggest surprise the numbers revealed was the sheet number of delegates from each country. A little over half of the country delegates are called “Party overflow”, a fantastic moniker that does not mean what you think it does. These are people sponsored by a country to attend and could include anything from government staff, to industrialists, to farmers.

These delegates don’t have the right to attend most negotiating sessions, but otherwise run their country’s pavilions and network their way around the conference. The United States brought 611 party overflowers (entirely government staff), while Brazil convoyed in 1,744 overflowers from almost every walk of life.

From what I hear from previous attendees, this group was vastly expanded over past years, and the number of regular party delegates has also been expanded. It has been a controversial change – particularly among non-governmental organization observers I’ve spoken to, who feel that the overflow people crowd them out when they’re attempting to lobby the actual negotiators.

Media teams are crawling all over the place here at COP28.

One big issue

Climate activists have labeled COP28 “the Corrupted COP” because it’s hosted by a petrostate and the COP28 President, Sultan Al Jaber, is also the CEO of the Emirati state oil company. But also because this year, dozens of oil company execs are attending the conference, including the Darth Vader of oil executives, Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil.

After decades of pretending the climate meetings don’t exist, the executives are wrapping their arms around COP28, essentially treating it as one more energy conference – but also one with hundreds of national leaders they can meet with on any topic they want.

Climate activists are up in arms.

“This space has to be a space where we are imagining a future without fossil fuel lobbyists, and so it doesn't make sense for them to be here,” Catherine Abreu, Executive Director of Destination Zero told me today. “We need this global process to be signaling that not only should each individual country be developing its just energy transition policies but it has to happen in an equitable way around the world.”

COP28 President and oil exec Al Jaber has also jumped right in the middle of the fray. In his opening speech he patted himself on the back for directly engaging with oil companies, “It had to be done,” he said, as a smattering of chuckles from activists spread across the auditorium Friday.

But the next day, Saturday, he announced 50 oil and gas companies, in particular a group of national oil companies with bad reputations for transparency, would sign a pledge to curb methane leaks and commit to net zero (not counting the oil and gas) by 2050. It’s a relatively easy and inexpensive move by oil and gas companies who need to burnish their reputations in the face of increasing calls to set a hard date to phase out fossil fuels.

As of today, over 100 countries have called for the phase out, but, Janet Milango from Climate Action Network pointed out today that those countries, “make up less than 1% of the world’s fossil fuel output.” In other words, phasing out oil and gas is popular if you’re not making money pulling it out of the ground.

Activists have also lined up to pooh-pooh the oil and gas methane announcement as “greenwashing”, pointing out that it would only add up to averting 0.2°C of warming.

“We need to seek an end to the extractive industries that derive our people and leave devotion in its wake,” Thandile Chinyavanhu from Greenpeace Africa told me today. “Let’s be clear, these projects are not about people, they are about profits.”

Yet, it was a notable step forward and added a boost to Saturday’s other announcements that the U.S. would start to hike fines for and start policing coil and gas company methane leaks, along with a pre-COP announcement by China that it would start working to reduce methane emissions.

It should also be noted that this morning, the day after the methane announcements, Al Gore held a presser about Climate Trace, a data project that collects greenhouse gas emissions data and maps it, worldwide. Their mapping system is impressive and granular enough to display and name specific emitters. Gore’s presser was no coincidence. It was meant to put oil and gas companies on notice.

What I did

I gotta admit it. The first three days really wiped me out. I tried to take it easy yesterday, but still ended up walking 10k steps – most in the hot desert sun. I got to my AirBnB last night fully intending to head out to another event later, but I closed my eyes for a quick nap and ended up sleeping for seven hours.

I feel like a total rookie.

Here’s one of five – five! – lines our hosts make us snake through each morning on the way to getting in the conference. It is hot.

Just getting into the conference – from exiting the metro to stepping foot in the conference area – took 40 minutes. As hordes of people arrive in the morning, our hosts have created a Byzantine series of squiggling lines leading up to the entrance. For instance, while on the first morning I simply left the train and went directly into the expo center, for the last two days crowds have been steered a full block away down one side of a street, then to cross it, then double back to where we started. Then a bunch more roped off mazes. When it’s extra sunny and hot, they hand out water, which is nice, but the water is warm.

I have lots of complaints.

Today, I spent the day looking for people to talk about fossil fuel companies and stopping in negotiation meetings to see what kinds of objections countries are raising. This meant traversing the huge expo city campus multiple times and heck, I’m wiped out again. And someone stole my nifty official COP28 water bottle, and our hosts won’t give me a replacement. But tonight – tonight! I will go out. A friend with family in Dubai has given me a list of great Afghan and Indian restaurants in town, and I will not miss an opportunity for great food.