UAE's Ambitious Climate Summit Overshadowed by Controversial Fossil Fuel Plans

UAE's Ambitious Climate Summit Overshadowed by Controversial Fossil Fuel Plans

UAE hosts world's largest climate summit but contradicts efforts with plans for extensive fossil fuel expansion; ADNOC aims to surpass Shell and BP in oil production by 2030

In late September, the environment minister of Zimbabwe relinquished control over a significant portion of his country's land - nearly 20% - to an obscure foreign company called Blue Carbon. Despite being a small and recently established company, Blue Carbon was led by a seasoned entrepreneur, an Emirati royal whose family had a long history of ruling Dubai and amassed wealth from oil.

Based in Dubai, Blue Carbon has acquired forested land across five African nations, an area approximately equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. The company's purpose is to oversee projects aimed at conserving forests that would otherwise be subject to logging, thus preventing substantial amounts of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

Blue Carbon can utilize the conservation efforts to generate carbon credits, which can then be sold to companies and governments to offset the climate pollution caused by their continued use of fossil fuels. The recent surge in forest conservation deals with Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Liberia, and Tanzania coincided with the upcoming United Nations COP28 climate summit, to be held in December by the United Arab Emirates. However, according to numerous analysts and climate advocates interviewed by CNN for this story, these conservation deals are seen as the latest ploy by the petrostate to mask its intentions of persisting with the exploitation of fossil fuels through green initiatives.

The UAE has announced its intention to extract its final barrel of oil in 50 years, coinciding with the projected depletion of its reserves, which is decades later than what scientists recommend for society to transition away from fossil fuels. Follow @bluecarbondxb for more updates.

A CNN spokesperson was unable to confirm whether the company would sell the credits to the UAE, but analysts believe that due to Blue Carbon's chairman, Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, being a relative of Dubai's royal ruler and the UAE's prime minister, it is likely these credits will be sold to offset the country's large carbon footprint. It is also possible that the credits could be sold to other oil-dependent nations and companies in the Gulf region and beyond. The UAE government has been contacted by CNN for comment.

Blue Carbon did not disclose to CNN the size of its projects, the amount of financing provided, or the expected number of generated credits. The agreements are still in the early stages and have not been finalized.

But the company informed CNN that it would unveil its agreements at the COP28 summit in Dubai as a "blueprint" for carbon trading. The annual climate summit is where leaders and negotiators from nearly 200 countries will gather to determine how and when to reduce fossil fuel use. The UAE is anticipated to leverage its COP28 presidency to aggressively advocate for the inclusion of carbon removal, not only from forests, but also from oil and gas as they are burned and then stored underground, as a central solution to the climate crisis.

UAE's Ambitious Climate Summit Overshadowed by Controversial Fossil Fuel Plans

The Climeworks factory in Iceland, located near Reykjavik at the Hellisheidi power plant, features fans in front of the collector drawing in ambient air, purifying it of CO2, and releasing it through ventilators at the back. Stacked in pairs, 10 meters high, are containers similar to those used in maritime transport. (Photo by Halldor KOLBEINS / AFP) (Photo by HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images)

Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images

What is carbon capture? Some say it will help save the world, for others its a dangerous distraction

Climate advocates have condemned the use of carbon removal, expressing doubt in its effectiveness and arguing that it could enable companies to continue large-scale production and burning of fossil fuels for profit.

The UAE faces significant financial implications, as oil and gas make up around 30% of its GDP and 13% of its exports. Over 80 countries are in support of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and the cost-competitiveness of renewable energy sources like wind and solar suggests that market forces will gradually phase out oil and gas regardless.

Unless fossil fuel companies and lobbyists succeed in persuading the world at COP28 to minimize their reliance on wind and solar energy and to continue extracting oil and gas.

The decision to appoint Sultan Al Jaber, who leads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and serves as the nation's international climate envoy, as the head of the negotiations at COP28 has drawn substantial criticism. In May, over 100 members of the US Congress and the European Parliament called for Al Jaber to be replaced as president of COP28.

Al Jaber has stated in numerous interviews that he does not see any conflict of interest in his various roles. ADNOC also mentioned in an email to CNN that there was "no one more qualified" to lead the negotiations, citing his leadership experience with Masdar, the nation's renewable energy vehicle, as well as its fossil fuels oil and gas company.

UAE's Ambitious Climate Summit Overshadowed by Controversial Fossil Fuel Plans

Sultan Al Jaber delivering a speech during the CERAWeek 2023 energy conference in Houston on March 6, 2023.

Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters

Al Jaber has consistently advocated for the inclusion of fossil fuel companies in climate negotiations to facilitate the actual implementation of green transition. While there is merit in this argument, climate advocates remain unconvinced, emphasizing the prolonged failure of the fossil fuel industry to demonstrate leadership on this critical issue. Despite acknowledging the link between their products and climate change four decades ago, these companies chose to prioritize profit over the necessary shift away from coal, oil, and gas.

Jamie Henn, founder and executive director of the non-profit Fossil Free Media, which supports the movement to end fossil fuels, believes that ADNOC has effectively turned the UN climate negotiations into a tool for greenwashing its oil business, making it appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is. The UAE's application to host the COP was seen as a strategic move to position itself and its oil and gas industry as part of the climate solution. Despite its small population of around 10 million, the UAE ranks as the sixth-largest carbon polluter per capita, and as of 2020, it was responsible for approximately 0.53% of the world's CO2 emissions. Despite its relatively small population, the UAE was the world's seventh-biggest oil producer by volume in 2022.

Henn expressed disbelief at the takeover of negotiations by fossil fuel interests, likening it to Philip Morris running international tobacco control negotiations. He highlighted the importance of the UN's rules for keeping tobacco lobbyists out of those negotiations and emphasized the need for similar regulations at COP.

Carbon offsets not a get out of jail free card

Never before has a COP, which is hosted by a different city each year, experienced such evident conflicts of interest. Al Jaber not only holds leadership positions in climate and fossil fuels, but Blue Carbon is so closely linked to the nation's royals and rulers that it is challenging to distinguish its promotion of carbon offsets from the UAE's interest in maintaining fossil fuel production.

The rules for buying and selling carbon credits will be determined at COP28 in Dubai. Blue Carbon plans to announce additional carbon offset deals in Africa ahead of the conference, potentially promoting carbon credits as a more significant climate solution.

Many countries have eagerly partnered with Blue Carbon, and its parent company, Global Carbon Investments, has pledged to allocate $1.5 billion to Zimbabwe as "pre-financing for carbon credits." This amount surpasses the country's expenditures on education and childcare, which are currently Zimbabwe's largest national expenses. Given the limited financial support from developed nations to address the climate crisis, carbon credit initiatives offer a fresh source of income for forest-rich countries.

Deforestation and degradation of forests contribute to at least 12% of global planet-warming emissions due to their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, the concept of creating tradable carbon credits in exchange for preserving forests has faced significant criticism. Additionally, some of the world's largest companies certifying carbon credits have been accused of using accounting methods that overstate their projects' impact on mitigating climate change.

In early November, Renat Heuberger, a Swiss entrepreneur, resigned from his position as CEO of South Pole, one of the world's pioneering carbon credit trading companies, after it was discovered that the company had exaggerated the climate value of carbon credits in its Kariba forest project in Zimbabwe.

UAE's Ambitious Climate Summit Overshadowed by Controversial Fossil Fuel Plans

A drone photo of forest in the Mucheni conservancy in Binga, Zimbabwe -- part of the Kariba carbon offsets project.

Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

Julia Jones, a conservation scientist at Bangor University in Wales, welcomed the investment in forest conservation efforts. However, she emphasized that conserving forests should not be seen as a solution to all environmental issues. According to Jones, the global focus should be on both halting further deforestation and significantly reducing emissions. She also cautioned against relying on forest conservation to offset emissions without significant investment in emission reduction measures.

Indigenous and customary landowners are often forced out of their homes to make way for projects, turning their once-undervalued land into profitable assets for polluting companies and nations. The Forest Peoples Programme, a non-governmental organization, reports that these evictions have become increasingly prevalent in Kenya since the allocation of land for carbon credits began.

"According to Justin Kenrick, a senior policy advisor at the Forest Peoples Programme, those in control of Africa's forests are set to make a substantial profit, leading to what seems to be a new scramble for Africa by corporations," Kenrick said in an email to CNN. "Meanwhile, conservation efforts in Kenya continue with a failed colonial approach of displacing the very communities who are most knowledgeable about how to preserve their forests."

ADNOC to produce more oil than Shell, BP

Regardless of the result of COP28, ADNOC, the UAE's state-owned oil and gas company, is positioned to be a major beneficiary. The company stands to gain significantly if it can successfully persuade the international community that its "Maximum Energy. Minimum Emissions" initiative is a feasible climate solution, despite the increasing global temperatures and the urgent calls from scientists to swiftly reduce fossil fuel usage.

When asked about the number of representatives from ADNOC attending COP28, a spokesperson declined to provide a direct response to CNN's inquiry. Additionally, the spokesperson refuted claims that the company would gain from the conference, dismissing them as "incorrect" and "baseless."

By 2030, ADNOC is projected to increase its oil production by 41% and its gas production by a third, compared to current estimates, as analyzed by Global Witness, a non-profit organization focused on environmental justice and human rights. This is expected to result in a 40% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Global Witness.

UAE's Ambitious Climate Summit Overshadowed by Controversial Fossil Fuel Plans

The aerial view of the Jon Amos Power plant in Coal, Poca, West Virginia, showcases its smoke stacks and cooling structures. (Image credit: Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

According to a report, the world is preparing to exceed the limit on fossil fuel production that is meant to control global warming. This increase in production goes against the plans of other oil companies. Shell's production is expected to stay mostly the same, while BP is aiming for a 25-percent reduction in production by 2030. In contrast, ADNOC plans to surpass both companies in production by 2030.

ADNOC is evolving into a global oil company in various ways. It is broadening its investments overseas, such as acquiring gas fields in Azerbaijan and partnering with BP to purchase a 50% stake in Israels NewMed Energy for gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, ADNOC is venturing into renewables and chemicals projects. To address its carbon footprint, ADNOC aims to capture 10 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030, a number which Global Witness recently found to be overstated.

ADNOC currently has the capacity to capture 800,000 metric tons per year and hopes to add another roughly 3 megatons per year through two facilities that are not yet completed. However, even with these facilities in operation, it is estimated to take ADNOC more than 340 years to capture the amount of carbon emissions it is expected to emit between 2023 and 2030. ADNOC did not address this estimate in its response to CNN and only mentioned its goal to achieve net zero by 2045 with an initial $15 billion allocation.

"Before this year, ADNOC may have been unfamiliar to many. However, as we uncover more about the company and its CEO's goal of making significant strides in reducing emissions at COP28, it becomes increasingly apparent that ADNOC is an outlier," stated Patrick Galey, a senior investigator at Global Witness.

"ADNOC not only intends to continue producing billions of barrels of oil for years to come, but also aims to be one of the most aggressive expanders of oil and gas production."

The UAE company's expansion beyond 2030 will be determined by the role negotiators assign to carbon capture at COP28 and its ability to tap into new international markets. Surprisingly, COP28 could be the platform that propels ADNOC into a leading global oil company.

This report includes contribution from CNN's Bethlehem Feleke in Nairobi.