The United Nations climate change talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, have broken a record for the largest number of fossil fuel representatives to attend, according to a new analysis.
Nearly four times the number of representatives and employees of fossil fuel companies have registered for access to this year's climate talks, known as COP28, compared to last year's talks in Egypt. There are only 2.5 times more registered attendees this year compared to last year. That's according to a new analysis from the Kick Big Polluters Out Coalition, which is composed of more than 450 groups involved in environmental and climate action.
The analysis counted at least 2,400 fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists at the talks. Pascoe Sabido, a researcher at the Belgian nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory, which is part of the coalition and helped with the analysis, says he was surprised at "just the sheer, sheer number" of oil and gas industry-affiliated attendees.
"It matters because these talks are going to be really important for deciding, do we continue with oil and gas, or do we phase out fossil fuels?" Sabido says.
The numbers come from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which published the provisional attendance list at the beginning of the talks. Sabido says he and his team identified fossil fuel-affiliated attendees as people who work for fossil fuel companies or for companies whose main activity relates to fossil fuels. They also counted people who work for and are part of the delegations of fossil fuel trade groups and lobbying groups. More fossil fuel-affiliated delegates are registered than all the delegates from the 10 most climate-vulnerable countries combined, according to the analysis.
The U.N. climate talks in Dubai are the seventh that University of Colorado Boulder environmental studies professor Max Boykoff has attended. He says he feels the heavy presence of the oil and gas industry at this year's talks, and he says the oil industry's posture reflects that.
"The United Arab Emirates Energy and Infrastructure minister talked about this meeting being the most 'inclusive' of all meetings in the past," Boykoff says. "His use of the word 'inclusive' was a way to talk about how this has involved fossil fuel interests unlike ever before."
Boykoff says some might argue that it's important for the oil industry to be present and vocal at the talks. But climate experts raise concerns that industry's outsized influence at COP28 could slow the kinds of change that mainstream climate science says are necessary to stave off the worst-case scenarios from global warming.
"As they lead the framing of the negotiations, it can also steer us towards the ongoing status quo, which is not good for the climate," Boykoff says.
One of the biggest debates at these climate talks will be around the future of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal.
Participants at the climate talks are debating language to "phase out" fossil fuels versus language to "phase down" fossil fuels. Phasing out means moving away from oil, gas and coal to cleaner energy like solar and wind plus batteries — and sometimes hydropower and nuclear. Phasing down would leave a longer future for planet-heating energy sources.
Boykoff, who was a contributing author for the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, notes that the science says a "phase out" of fossil fuels is necessary and urgent. The oil industry is arguing for a slower "phase down" of fossil fuels, delaying the transition to cleaner energy. "This is a big battle," Boykoff says.
At the 2022 climate talks in Egypt, major fossil fuel producing nations beat back efforts to issue a statement that would have called for a rapid cut in the use of fossil fuels.
"It's an irony not lost on anyone here at COP28 that as negotiators are working through the night to see if they can agree on fossil fuel phase-out or phase-down text, fossil fuel company representatives outnumber delegates from the most climate vulnerable countries several times over," says Jacqueline Peel, professor of law at the University of Melbourne and director of Melbourne Climate Futures, in an email from Dubai.
She adds: "The stakes for the climate are very high at this COP."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
At the U.N. climate talks in Dubai, the spotlight is on one industry, oil and gas. The conference is being held in a major oil producing country, the United Arab Emirates, and a new analysis finds a record number of fossil fuel representatives are expected to attend. Julia Simon from NPR's climate desk is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Julia.
JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So this isn't the first time oil companies have come to a U.N. climate conference. Is there something new here?
SIMON: The number. This analysis comes from a coalition called Kick Big Polluters Out. They used public data from the U.N. and identified who works for fossil fuel companies, as well as fossil fuel trade groups and lobbying groups, and are part of their delegations. There are about 2 1/2 times more people at this year's talks than last year, but the number of fossil fuel representatives has nearly quadrupled.
MARTIN: And how did that happen?
SIMON: Well, many of them were invited. Some of them are in delegations of countries, like France.
MARTIN: And why do the people taking a look at this think this matters?
SIMON: Fossil fuel producers have a huge stake in how the world addresses climate change. The emissions from oil, coal and gas are the biggest single driver of global warming, and efforts to cut fossil fuels can be an existential threat for them. So there's this intense negotiation about the ongoing use of fossil fuels. Here is Max Boykoff. He's a professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado Boulder. He's in Dubai right now.
MAX BOYKOFF: Being here, it is quickly apparent that there's debates over language, debates over the phrases that are used and uttered within these halls.
SIMON: He says there's concern about how fossil fuel producers would influence the language on the future of oil, gas and coal in the final global agreement that comes out of these talks.
MARTIN: OK, so can you give us an example?
SIMON: Yeah. There's debate over this language of phasing out fossil fuels versus phasing down fossil fuels.
MARTIN: Say more about that. What's the difference?
SIMON: Yeah, so phasing out fossil fuels means transitioning away from oil, gas and coal to things that don't warm the Earth, like solar, wind, hydropower. This is not a popular idea for many in the oil industry, who argue fossil fuels are reliable and can help developing nations get electricity. And you may have heard earlier this week, the president of the climate talks, who is also the CEO of the UAE state oil company, he made these comments about, quote, "phasing out" fossil fuels. This is Sultan al-Jaber. He said in this video from last month that there's, quote, "no science" to support the idea that phasing out fossil fuels will limit global warming. That is incorrect. He says his remarks were misinterpreted. But al-Jaber and others who are aligned with the oil industry are pushing back against the phase out language in the agreement and instead are pushing for a, quote, "phase down" of fossil fuels.
MARTIN: So phase down sounds like the idea is to leave the door open for fossil fuel use in the future.
SIMON: Yeah. At this conference, the oil industry is talking about using fossil fuels well into the future, especially combined with technology that captures emissions and stores it underground. It's called carbon capture and storage. The problem is that this tech is not yet proven. It's expensive. It uses a lot of energy. So what scientists are concerned about is that leaders will agree to prolong the life of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, thinking that these technologies can make them less harmful to the climate. But that's a big if.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Julia Simon. Julia, thank you.
SIMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.