Opinion: The United Nation’s latest climate meeting got off to a rocky start in Bonn this week. Many countries had widely differing views on the agenda for the current gathering as they plan for COP28, the next plenary negotiations, in Dubai in December.

COP28 is particularly significant because it will be the first official stocktake of how signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement are tracking on the climate commitments they have made. All but a handful of countries are significantly under-performing, including New Zealand.

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The clashing agendas in Bonn include the focus of European countries on actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions; China’s emphasis on adaptation to the changing climate; and developing countries heightened fight for climate funding from rich countries.

The United Arab Emirates, as host and president of COP28, remains adamant fossil fuels are one of the key energy sources in the transition to clean energy, albeit with greater efforts to capture the emissions from them.

The UAE is the world’s seventh largest oil producer and 15th largest gas producer. Adnoc, its state-owned fossil fuel company, is investing US$150 billion to increase its output by a quarter by 2027. Yet it has earmarked only US$15b of that for “low carbon solutions” out to 2030.

In January, the UAE appointed Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber to lead its COP28 presidency. He is managing director of Adnoc and chairman of its renewable energy subsidiary, Masdar. He is also the UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technologies.

Al-Jaber often emphasises the US$30b Masdar has invested or committed to in 40 renewable energy projects around the world. But that is dwarfed by its parent company’s investment plans for fossil fuel.

The UAE’s climate plans are “Highly Insufficient” judges Climate Action Tracker. Although its emissions had fallen for a few years until 2020, they are sharply on the rise again towards setting a new high by 2030. By then, its policies and actions would be consistent with an eventual rise of more than 4C in global temperatures.

UAE Climate Action Tracker

Despite some dissensions, though, many Western political leaders have affirmed the COP28 roles of the UAE and Al-Jaber. His appointment was endorsed, for example, by the UK government, US climate envoy John Kerry and Frans Timmermans, the EU commissioner for green policy. French diplomat Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris Agreement, wrote last month: “Who better than the UAE to demonstrate it is part of the solution? The UAE cannot afford to play it safe.”

However, two weeks ago some 130 lawmakers from the EU and US addressed a letter to the United Nations, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President Joe Biden warning that fossil fuel companies would exert “undue influence” over the COP28 negotiations.

Having an oil company chief executive as president of the negotiations would “severely jeopardise” them, the lawmakers wrote. They urged governments to impose measures to limit corporate influence on COPs, suggesting first steps toward new rules could be taken at the current UN talks in Bonn.

Soon after his appointment, Al-Jaber had initiated what he called a “listening campaign” to try to quell such dissent. He emphasised six broad themes for COP28, though the UAE has yet to flesh out plans for them:

* Inclusion: The UAE says it will subsidise young and poor delegates coming to COP28; and its presidential team for the negotiations includes two senior women, Shamma al-Mazrui, UAE’s Minister for Youth Affairs, and Razan al-Mubarak, President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

* A central role for the private sector: UAE is hoping to attract 80,000 delegates, twice the attendees of recent COPs. It says the big draw for businesses will be a huge green tech expo.

* Green innovation and technology as major drivers of economic and social development, rather than threats to existing technologies such as fossil fuels.

* Adding biodiversity goals to the climate agenda: This would help bring together the UN’s complementary conventions on climate and biodiversity, as the latter is central to the nature-based solutions to the former.

* Climate finance: The UAE has joined the call for reforms of multi-terminal development banks such as more blended finance with the private sector.

* Keeping alive the goal of limiting the global rise in temperature to 1.5C: Al-Jaber repeatedly says the world needs “a course correction” to drastically cut emissions, while he reiterates the roles of fossil fuels and carbon capture and storage (CCS) to clean up their emissions. Yet, CCS technologies remain nascent, very expensive and unproven at scale.

But the pushback against the UAE continues. For example, last weekend, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and twice a climate envoy for the UN, led a group of prominent women who wrote to the UN asking for the setting up of a “firewall” between the COP preparations and UAE’s oil industry.

“So far, UAE hasn’t shown signs of prioritising action to address the impact of climate change on vulnerable people, especially women,” they wrote.

“Some are saying that the talks are heading for a car crash – instead of leading to address the emergency for people, climate and nature, we are also facing an emergency for the survival of the UN multilateral system and democracy.”

At the opening of the Bonn meeting, Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, urged representatives to work out a “course correction” to keep 1.5C alive.

“There is at times tension between national interest and the global common good. I urge delegates to be brave, to see that by prioritising the common good, you also serve your national interests – and act accordingly,” he said.

Yet, with the Bonn meeting due to end next Thursday, delegates still have massive work to do to agree the processes by which COP28 in six months’ time will be the global stocktake of nations’ commitments and actions intended by the Paris Agreement.

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