COP leadership on fossil fuels, finance and China-U.S. relations

Senior Global Correspondent
Graphic depicting a tug of war over money above a heating globe
Illustration by Samson Awosan.

The United Nations climate conference set for the United Arab Emirates in about four months will feature unusually high stakes, not just because of the extreme weather plaguing much of the planet today, but also because of the fossil fuel power emanating from this year’s oil-rich host.

Majid Al Suwaidi is the designated director general for the conference, known as COP28, which makes him the key lieutenant to COP28 president designate Sultan Al Jaber. Al Jaber will lead the UN climate summit taking place in Dubai for two weeks starting in late November.

Al Suwaidi, who has served as the UAE ambassador to Spain and a senior UAE diplomat in the United States, spoke to Cipher this week about the opportunities and challenges for the upcoming COP28 summit. The conversation touched on the controversy over the future of fossil fuels considering Al Jaber’s other role as head of the UAE’s state oil company, the importance of the U.S. and China working together—timely considering President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry is there this week—and how finance is at the summit’s epicenter.

The conversation, conducted with Cipher’s senior global correspondent Bill Spindle earlier this week, was edited for length and clarity.

Q: We’ve passed the halfway point to COP28. What still needs to be done to prepare?

MAS: I think we’re unprecedented as a COP in having an agenda out so early. We’ve laid out where we think the parties need to come together. This is a party-driven process and we as the COP presidency steer the process. We encourage the debate and the discussion we’ve laid out in our document. What we need now is for the parties to have those hard conversations and make real progress.

Q: The role of fossil fuels continues to be debated. Does the COP presidency feel there needs to be a formal decision about this at the meeting, a formally announced “phase down” or “phase out” of fossil fuels?

MAS: There are many parties that want to see language on fossil fuels, a ‘phase down’ or ‘phase out,’ for instance. There are other parties who have very different views on that.

Our COP president has said — and this is something that’s quite unprecedented if you consider who he is, and where the country is that he’s coming from — he’s said clearly that he thinks that a phase down of fossil fuels is inevitable, and that we need to start to move to talking about how we go from the energy system we have today to the energy system of the future that we want.

We need to start to talk about what we’re building up and how we can do that quickly, rather than talking about what we’re taking away from people.

Q: Should official language on the phase down of fossil fuels be included in the declaration at the end of COP28?

MAS: The COP presidency’s job is to get consensus amongst the parties. The parties need to give us a clear signal that that’s something that they want. We just don’t have that right now. We’ve created the environment for that discussion to happen. Now it’s up to the parties to decide what they want to see reflected in the final document.

Q: Reducing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s the primary component of natural gas, is one of the few areas with widespread agreement, yet we still haven’t seen a lot of progress. How can more progress be made here?

MAS: We believe that there is definitely room for progress there. We do it in the UAE. We see no reason why others can’t do it. And so, we think that this is an area where we have to deliver, and parties need to step up and show how they’re going to deliver on this. This is an easy win that all of us could, should be able to get behind.

Q: The long sought $100 billion of climate funding that developed countries have promised to developing nations and so far failed to deliver is key. Are you confident those countries will come through before the conference?

MAS: This is an area where I think that we’ve already had a great deal of success. When we started at the beginning of the year, nobody from the developed world wanted to talk about this. We need to see developed countries live up to their promise. Now we need to really see concrete steps that show clearly how developed countries are going to deliver it and hopefully deliver it this year. I feel very confident that they will.

Q: Does financing for developing countries remain a huge concern?

MAS: You’ve hit the nail on the head. Really, finance is going to be the key outcome for COP28, not so much in terms of a dollar figure but more in terms of the systemic changes that need to happen to the financial architecture.

We’re struggling to get to $100 billion when we need to get to trillions of dollars of annual investment. We need to look at the current financial architecture and how we are delivering finance, particularly to developing countries. We need scale, and we need speed. We talk about the three A’s. We need to have capital being more available, we need it to be more accessible, we need it to be more affordable.

Q: U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is in China this week and past COPs have been energized by cooperation between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters. Are there ways those two countries could help supercharge the solutions in Dubai?

MAS: We have to have the U.S. and China working together to address these challenges. This is a global problem. We need leadership from these large emitters. John Kerry has been a fantastic supporter of us and the COP presidency. We welcome his efforts to talk with the Chinese. We need them to come together and help to solve this challenge.

Q: How will demonstrations and protests be handled at this COP? This was a persistent issue at COP27 last year in Egypt.

MAS: We want everybody there. We hope everybody comes and they are welcome to the UAE as long as they come with their ideas and solutions to help solve climate change. That’s how we get to the solutions we want to achieve.