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UAE's president-designate for UN COP28 offers full-throated defense of nation hosting climate talks

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Emirati president-designate for the upcoming United Nations COP28 climate conference offered a full-throated defense Saturday of his nation hosting the talks, dismissing those who “just go on the attack without knowing anything, without knowing who we are.”

Climate activists roundly criticized Sultan al-Jaber's appointment as the president-designate of the talks because he serves as the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., which is seeking to boost its production of carbon-emitting crude oil and natural gas.

Back before a quiet, hometown crowd and an amenable moderator after attending the U.N. General Assembly, al-Jaber pointed to his 20 years of work on renewable energy as a sign that he and the Emirates represent the best chance to reach a consensus to address climate change worldwide.

“The world only, for whatever reason, views us as an oil-and-gas nation,” he said. “We have moved beyond oil and gas 20 years ago. We embraced the energy transition 20 years ago.”

He added: “We don’t become passionate or ideological or so emotional. We’re business-oriented. We’re results-driven.”

Al-Jaber, a 50-year-old longtime climate envoy, is a trusted confidant of UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He’s been behind tens of billions of dollars spent or pledged toward renewable energy in the federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula — but also leads an oil company that pumps some 4 million barrels of crude a day and hopes to expand to 5 million daily.

Addressing the world's reliance on crude oil, al-Jaber issued a challenge to the audience listening to him at Dubai's visually striking Museum of the Future: Tell him how to immediately stop the use of all fossil fuels.

“Some are promoting the fact that we can just unplug the world from the current energy system and with a flick of a switch, we can just initiate a new energy system,” he said. “That doesn't work. It won't work. … So we need to sober up and be more realistic and more practical.”

But the fact that al-Jaber repeatedly defended himself and the country from activists' criticism is incredibly telling in the Emirates, an autocratic nation that while a key U.S. business and military ally still tightly controls speech, bans political parties and criminalizes labor strikes.

As the profile of the UAE and Dubai in particular has grown in recent decades, so too have its ambitions abroad, drawing increasing scrutiny of its involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and actions backing fellow autocrats in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Al-Jaber described his nation as having the “political will” under its leadership to push forward.

His colleague on stage, the UAE's U.N. Climate Change High-Level Champion Razan al-Mubarak, also sought to call climate change denial “dead.” But a recent Republican presidential debate in the U.S. saw candidates roundly rejecting the notion that humans are causing climate change, with other right-wing politicians worldwide similarly dismissive.

One important target of the COP will be making sure that a global pledge to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times becomes a reality, al-Jaber said. Scientists say that in order to achieve that goal, emissions need to be halved by 2030 and reach net zero by mid-century, meaning all emissions are either slashed or canceled out somehow — setting an incredible challenge ahead of the talks for the UAE officials like al-Jaber shepherding the negotiations.

“Time has come for us to take on this responsibility, but we do need the world to understand," he said. “We want all of those likeminded partners to step up, to up their game, to engage, to be more forthcoming, more forward leaning, rather than just sitting back, pointing fingers and shooting.”

Each year, the country hosting the U.N. negotiations known as the Conference of the Parties — where COP gets its name — nominates a person to chair the talks. Hosts typically pick a veteran diplomat as the talks can be difficult to steer between competing nations and their interests.

The nominee’s position as “COP president” is confirmed by delegates at the start of the talks, usually without objections. However, activists’ ire over al-Jaber’s selection could see a turbulent start to the negotiations.

Al-Jaber described the efforts at reaching out to nations, activists and industry ahead of COP28 as “unprecedented.” However, his remarks underscored what is likely a growing irritation of the criticism.

“We simply engaged, listened and we did not leave any stone unturned,” he said, before adding that some "chose very early on to just go on the attack without knowing anything, without knowing who we are, without knowing who am I, without knowing what we bring to the table.”

COP28 will be held at Dubai’s Expo City from Nov. 30 through Dec. 12.

Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press