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There is pushback against the U.A.E, a major oil producer, hosting global climate talks


One major point of contention at this year's U.N. climate talks, known as COP28 in Dubai - the host country is a major oil producer. And the man leading the talks - well, he heads the country's national oil company. NPR's Aya Batrawy is at the conference in Dubai and joins us now. Hey, Aya.


KHALID: So before we dig into some of the controversy, remind us - what's the main focus of these climate talks?

BATRAWY: Well, it is keeping to the goal of not allowing the Earth to warm past 1.5 degrees Celsius because if you go above that threshold, science says we're going to see catastrophic sea-level rises, more extreme heat and the almost total loss of coral reefs. But if we're going to get there, scientists say we have to slash our carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030. And basically what that means is burning less fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. And we're nowhere near there. And so one of the main debates at this summit is what countries will agree to when it comes to their commitments to burning fossil fuels and which countries are actually going to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars needed a year to help poorer countries suffering some of the worst impacts of climate change, even though they've contributed the very least to this crisis.

KHALID: So Aya, how is this year's host, the United Arab Emirates, influencing these talks?

BATRAWY: So first, let me just put you where I am. This is happening, this event, at a sprawling site in the desert. It was the site of the World's Fair, the expo a few years ago. And it's very warm here in December. So there's a lot of air conditioning, a lot of electricity being consumed to keep this event running. And this kind of all exemplifies really the paradox that the man the UAE chose to lead the talks represents. He's Sultan Al-Jaber. So not only is he a major renewables company chairman, but he's also, as you noted, the CEO of the state oil company. And he argues that oil and gas companies have to be part of this transition and have to be part of the talks. And here's what he told the summit about that.


AHMED AL-JABER: We must look for ways and ensure the inclusion of the role of fossil fuels. I know there are strong views about the idea of including language on fossil fuels and renewables in the negotiated text.

BATRAWY: Yeah. I mean, and he's saying, like, look, the UAE can help push these oil companies to make changes. But what he's also saying is that the world is demanding more, not less, investments in oil and gas. They want Gulf countries to increase their production. So they know that this isn't going to last forever, though. That's why they're investing a lot of money in both renewable energy projects in Africa, for example, as well as their own oil and gas investments.

KHALID: And do these interests undermine the whole point of the conference? I mean, it sounds like they must not be making these arguments without any sort of controversy.

BATRAWY: Yeah. I mean, the UAE really wants to have this successful COP. They want to be known for being the bold ones that engaged with the oil industry. But it's really not clear what kind of language can come out of the talks when it comes to fossil fuels, which are the backbone of this country's economy and its international clout, the reason it can hold this event. So I wanted to know kind of what are the point of these gatherings, especially when countries still haven't agreed on phasing out fossil fuels? And I asked Cassie Flynn. She's the global director of climate change at the U.N. Development Programme.

CASSIE FLYNN: We really do need conferences like this. We need the world to convene on it, because it can't just be about a handful of countries or a handful of even companies that come together and start to make decisions because the climate crisis affects everyone.

BATRAWY: And she gave the example to me of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, where rising sea levels are a real threat right now, and they've contributed next to nothing in emissions. But she's like, this is a place - the COP talks - where countries like that can meet with these big, powerful emitters like the United States and China and be heard. And she says they've gotten results. Like, that 1.5-degree target, for instance, is something vulnerable nations had really fought for. So it is a messy process. It's uneven. There's a lot of pushback. But that's why these talks are held.

KHALID: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy reporting from the COP28 summit in Dubai. Good to talk to you.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Asma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.