The president of COP28 furiously disputed reports he previously said there was “no science” behind phasing out fossil fuels.
Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber was already a controversial choice to lead this year’s UN climate conference, because of his role as the chief of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – a job environmentalists argue is a conflict of interest.
Then on Sunday, The Guardian and the Centre for Climate Reporting claimed Al Jaber said a phase out of fossil fuels would not allow sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves”.
Just a day later, the COP28 president passionately defended himself, after a Sydney Morning Herald reporter questioned him about such claims at a news conference.
Al Jaber said: “Let’s just clarify where I stand on the science.
“I honestly think there is some confusion out there and misrepresentation.
“Let me first introduce myself to you. I’m an engineer by background.
“It’s the science and my respect for the science and my conviction for the science and the passion for the science that have allowed me to progress in my career.”
He said the “phase-down and the phase out of fossil fuels is essential” – but it “needs to be orderly, fair, just and responsible.”
Hitting out at those who reported his comments, Al Jaber added: “Allow me to say that I am quite surprised at the constant attempt to undermine this message.”
He also said that it was “one statement taken out of context with misrepresentation” which had “maximum coverage”.
He was joined by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair, Jim Skea, who backed the COP28 chief up.
Skea said: “Dr Sultan has been attentive to the science as we have discussed it, and I think he fully understood it.”
The initial reports recounted a conversation Al Jaber had with the chair of the Elders group, former UN special envoy for climate change and ex-Irish president, Mary Robinson, at an online She Changes Climate event last month.
Robinson had said to Al Jaber the world is in “absolute crisis” because we have not phased out fossil fuels.
She then said he could help phase the carbon-spewing fuels out altogether and act “with more credibility” because of his role as an oil chief.
He replied: “I accepted to come to this meeting to have a sober and mature conversation. I’m not in any way signing up to any discussion that is alarmist.
“There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C.”
That’s contrary to the widespread belief – backed by climate scientists – that stopping fossil fuels is the best way to stop global temperatures from exceeding 1.5C compared to pre-industrial levels by 2050.
As the UN’s general-secretary Antonio Guterres has told delegates on Friday: “The science is clear: The 1.5C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce, not abate. Phase out, with a clear timeframe.”
Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics, said Al Jaber’s words verged “on climate denial”.
Previous reports also claimed the host country wanted to ramp up its own oil production even as it was hosting climate talks aimed at cutting fossil fuels.
Hopes that this climate summit could be a turning point with global warming is still high, though. More than 100 countries have already announced their support for a phase-out of fossil fuels.