• COP28 preparations facing public relations challenges, while stance on fossil fuels continues to be controversial

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

The Financial Times has reported on the difficulties the organisers of the COP28 climate summit, to be held in the United Arab Emirates, are having in organising public relations.

At least three international communications agencies – BCW, Edelman and FGS – have not been retained by the COP28 organisers over the past year, either because they declined further work, could not agree terms, or the organisers chose not to retain them. It is the latter which is suggested by the Financial Times, with one unnamed communications manager telling the paper that aside from the “external challenges and reputational issues, internally COP is a very politically complex space — a client that is very hard to please”.

A British academic based in Qatar has found evidence of more than 100 fake Twitter accounts ‘astroturfing’ the conference, that is, providing favourable coverage of UAE foreign policy and environmental credentials. The presidency of COP28 has said it has reported these accounts to Twitter and were “generated by outside actors unconnected to COP28 and are clearly designed to discredit COP28 and the climate process”. Sponsorship packages at the highest level (to give access to world leaders) are priced at up to US$8.2 million for the conference, while those that give access to open and civil society organisations and small businesses are less than US$7,000.

The politics of the conference continue to be fraught. Sultan al-Jaber, the president-designate of COP28 and head of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, has invited Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to the conference, a highly controversial move, and for its attitude to internal dissenters, the UAE has also been criticised by human rights organisations. Meanwhile, more than 100 politicians from Western countries have signed a letter calling for the removal of Sultan al-Jaber from the leadership role of the COP because his role in oil risked “undermining the negotiations”. It is Sultan al-Jaber’s stance on oil and gas which has been the most controversial position for climate campaigners. Yet it is not an unreasonable one. He has long said that fossil fuel use must be abated, and that the focus of the COP must be on emissions; he has recently added that unabated fossil fuel consumption must be phased down. In a world that still takes something like 80-85% of its energy from fossil sources, and which because of its scale can only be changed gradually, a focus on emissions from those sources seems pragmatic and sensible.

There are widespread dangers in such an approach, however – the “unabated” may be misunderstood, fudged, or ignored by policymakers or producers; technology to achieve abatement may be costly or prove not to be as efficient as desired; accounting and monitoring standards could be too loose or unenforced. In addition, allowing for fossil fuels could delay the introduction of alternative technologies. Some of these negative effects are inevitable to some extent. Even so, nations that are hugely economically reliant on fossil fuels are not going to walk away from them while there is a demand for their products (and chaotic geopolitical instability would occur if their demand suddenly dried up), and the fact that many new fossil fuel production projects are going ahead is evidence of that.

At the same time, hundreds of millions of people still live in an energy deficit. And though it could be more drastically strengthened, there is growing policy support for alternative clean technologies, meaning that, when they are more viable, they will replace fossil fuels. The pragmatic approach, that which can bring most countries along while achieving rapid decarbonisation, is probably the one that includes fossil fuels while doing its utmost to avoid the negative effects of them.