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UN climate summit organisers wage public relations battle

UN climate conference organisers are pitching for top corporate sponsors for the Dubai summit at the same time as the United Arab Emirates attempts to combat rising criticism of the petrostate’s leadership of COP28.

The UAE COP28 has offered sponsorship packages ranging up to $8.2mn (Dh30mn) for a principal partner to enjoy privileged access in the controlled “blue zone” where world leaders gather, according to documents sent to prospective sponsors. Space in the “green zone”, open to civil society and small business, is less than $7,000 (Dh25,000). Expressions of interest for pavilions close this week for the event starting on November 30.

The marketing drive comes as activists and more than 100 western politicians have been vocal in opposition to the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber as president-designate for the UN climate talks while he is also in charge of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The US and the EU have so far continued to back the UAE.

Through this public relations battle, the COP28 team has failed to retain at least three international communications agencies over the past year, including BCW, Edelman and FGS, people aware of the matter said.

COP28 is now looking to hire another consultancy to take over communications support. The organisers have also seconded employees from domestic organisations including Adnoc, the state renewable energy group Masdar and the foreign ministry.

Edelman said it had supported the announcement of the COP28 presidency and initial rollout: “However, this engagement has concluded.” BCW and FGS declined to comment.

CT Group has also been hired, including the former Downing Street aide to former UK prime minister Boris Johnson who opposed an oil and gas tax, David Canzini, to provide strategic counsel, as previously reported by the Financial Times.

Separately, a British academic based in Qatar, Marc Owen-Jones, who specialises in online disinformation, has identified at least 100 fake Twitter accounts engaged in a “large, multilingual astroturfing effort” around COP28, that promote UAE foreign policy and burnish its environmental record. Astroturfing is a public-relations campaign that magnifies support for a cause through linked, fictitious accounts.

The COP28 presidency said these fake bot accounts, which it said it had reported to Twitter, were “generated by outside actors unconnected to COP28 and are clearly designed to discredit COP28 and the climate process”.

Jaber has drawn ire from climate campaigners after maintaining that fossil fuel production should not be the focus of the climate summit but rather the control of emissions, either through lower demand or carbon capture and storage technology that allows continued oil and gas use.

The UAE has also sought to highlight the renewables drive under Jaber’s leadership of Masdar. But its commitments worth $30bn so far compare with the planned $150bn in capital spending as Adnoc seeks to expand oil output capacity in the next five years.

Climate scientists and the International Energy Agency say that a stop to new oil and gas development is required to keep global warming to 1.5C since pre-industrial times. The month of May was the second-hottest globally in 30 years.

Sultan al-Jaber is in charge of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company © BENJAMIN WESTHOFF/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In his latest speech at UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany, Jaber remained consistent in saying that “unabated” fossil fuel production must be phased down — referring to production without the capture of carbon emissions — while renewable energy capacity and energy efficiency was boosted.

He took an extra step, for the first time adding that the “phase-down of fossil fuels is inevitable” but stopped short of a timeline or suggesting a phaseout of production that many countries have sought.

The UAE’s invitation to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has further sparked discontent in western capitals opposed to his diplomatic rehabilitation.

Hosting such a high-profile event has also brought the autocracy’s domestic human rights record under renewed scrutiny. Advocacy groups have called for the release of dozens of political dissidents detained since 2012, many of whom remain imprisoned despite having completed their sentences. The authorities brand the detainees as a terrorist threat, activists have said.

Jaber, an engineer by background who is trusted by Abu Dhabi’s leadership as one of its most effective technocrats, is known as being particularly demanding and sensitive to criticism and has a reputation for frequently dispensing with consultants. 

“Forget the external challenges and reputational issues, internally COP is a very politically complex space — a client that is very hard to please,” said one communications manager.

Executives close to the government maintain that the UAE’s convening power across the developing world could combine to forge progress among large polluters.

Abu Dhabi’s pursuit of a multipolar foreign policy, balancing historic security ties with western states alongside newer trade and oil relationships with powers such as China, Russia and India, gives the Gulf monarchy outreach abilities beyond most western democracies, they say.

“A win would be to come out of the summit with a deliverable on financing for the emerging economies, or progress on loss and damage [funding],” said one banker. 

In 2009, the world’s leading economies pledged to raise $100bn a year to finance climate action through an adaptation fund for developing countries, but the annual target has yet to be reached. “They’ll push for the north to pony up on the long-promised $100bn,” said one Abu Dhabi-based executive. “And who knows, they might get it.”

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