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‘Depressing and dystopian’: UAE used COP28 to boost fossil fuel deals, investigation says

Global Witness projected Al Jaber’s face and findings from its report onto buildings surrounding the Bonn Intersessional on 3 June.
Global Witness projected Al Jaber’s face and findings from its report onto buildings surrounding the Bonn Intersessional on 3 June. Copyright Global Witness
Copyright Global Witness
By Lottie Limb
Published on Updated
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“I hope the younger generations can forgive us,” one diplomat involved in the ADNOC negotiations is reported to have said.

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The UAE’s state-owned oil company used last year’s UN climate summit to try and quintuple its fossil fuel deals, according to a new investigation. 

COP28 in Dubai was marred by controversy from the start of 2023, when the summit’s president was announced as Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

On the cusp of the conference in November, leaked documents revealed plans from the country’s COP28 team to discuss oil and gas deals with more than a dozen other nations - apparently leveraging its prestige as COP host to ADNOC’s advantage.

Now an investigation from NGO Global Witness shows that ADNOC sought close to $100 billion (€92 billion) worth of oil, gas and petrochemical deals in 2023 - a fivefold increase on the previous year.

“Having placed a fossil fuel CEO at the helm, the UAE knew exactly what it was doing and was not let down - COP28 seems to have been moulded towards the benefit of its state oil company,” says Patrick Galey, senior investigator at Global Witness.

The report comes during the Bonn Climate Change Conference in Germany this week - the midway point between COP28 and COP29 in Azerbaijan. It warns that the incoming petrostate host can’t be allowed to copy the UAE’s approach. 

What deals did ADNOC strike during the UAE’s COP year?

The leaked documents, prepared by the UAE’s COP28 team and obtained by journalists at the Centre for Climate Reporting, identified 16 nations as top targets for deal making.

ADNOC did seek deals with 12 of these countries, according to Global Witness investigators. 

This includes ADNOC and BP announcing plans for a joint venture to buy a 50 per cent stake in Israel’s NewMed Energy to expand gas development. As well as two bids for a stake in Braskem, Latin America’s largest producer of petrochemicals, which is part-owned by Brazil’s state-run oil and gas producer Petrobras. 

It also finalised contracts worth an estimated $17 billion (€15.6 billion) to develop the UAE’s Hail and Ghasha gas field in partnership with Russia’s Lukoil and Germany’s Wintershall Dea. 

In total, ADNOC pursued 20 major international fossil fuel deals in 2023, according to Global Witness’s analysis, worth a potential €92 billion. That is five times greater than the value of deals it pursued in 2022, and 40 per cent higher than that of the previous four years combined.

Though the NGO acknowledges it could have missed some deals since 2019, the figures - compiled from a variety of datasets - flag a huge spike in business activity in the year UAE hosted COP.

According to an anonymous source, one diplomat involved in negotiations was heard exclaiming, “I hope the younger generations can forgive us for what we have done.” 

ADNOC, however, denies that it used COP28 to pursue business deals. 

“This latest report by Global Witness attempts to recycle old allegations, and make negative, misleading, and inaccurate statements,” a spokesperson for the company said in response. 

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A COP28 spokesperson told the NGO that, “Made up allegations about conversations that never took place and attempt to discredit the hard work and tremendous accomplishments of the Presidency do not merit consideration.”

From one petrostate to another: Will Azerbaijan follow the UAE’s lead?

“Make no mistake, COP28 was hijacked by the interests of the fossil fuel industry, who weren’t content simply to block or stall genuine climate policy but used the opportunity to pursue more climate-wrecking oil and gas deals,” adds Galey. 

“As depressing as it is dystopian, climate talks must never be allowed to create more climate chaos.”

Azerbaijan was among the countries that ADNOC struck deals with last year. In August 2023, it acquired a 30 per cent equity stake in Azerbaijan’s Absheron gas field, in partnership with French oil giant TotalEnergies

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As COP28 entered its final week, the UAE company also announced an agreement with Azerbaijan to explore the production of fossil hydrogen.

Campaigners fear that such handshaking could lead to a more insidious closeness between the COP hosts and fellow petrostates. Global Witness says that Azerbaijan appears to be seeking to emulate ADNOC’s approach to climate negotiations, having announced plans to privatise parts of the state-run oil and gas firm SOCAR in the weeks before the Baku summit in November.

“COP28 seems to have provided other petrostates with a sinister playbook to copy and paste from,” says Galey. “As the UAE passes the baton onto Azerbaijan, we are now looking at the possibility of consecutive COPs being hijacked for the interests of big polluters and their profits.”

COP29’s president is another controversial choice: Mukhtar Babayev, Azerbaijan's ecology minister, who previously spent nearly two decades in senior positions at SOCAR.

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In response to Global Witness’s investigation, a spokesperson for COP29 said they “reject in the strongest terms the suggestion that Azerbaijan has a hidden agenda in its hosting of COP29. 

“Azerbaijan is 100 per cent committed to bringing countries together with the ambition of keeping the 1.5C degree target within reach,” they added.

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