When the name of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber emerged as the UAE’s choice as president elect of this year’s COP28 climate summit, the reception could kindly be described as mixed.

While some pointed to the UAE industry minister’s pioneering role with early renewables pacesetter Masdar there was far more attention on his job as CEO of oil and gas giant Adnoc.

How could a figure so steeped in the fossil industry possibly have an even hand on the tiller of the global climate fight was the question – not unreasonably – asked. One critic observed that putting a tobacco company in charge of a health conference would be the closest parallel.

In the months since, Al Jaber has set about proving his critics wrong – in words at least, which are to be fair the only weapons at his disposal until the actual business of the conference starts in November.

“Be brutally honest” about the world’s shortcomings on the climate fight, “disrupt business as usual” and “attack all emissions, everywhere [scopes] 1.2 and3,” he told this week’s Ministerial on Climate Action in Brussels, sounding more like Greta Thunberg than the head of one of the world’s largest fossil fuel players.

With a stated ambition to keeping the 1.5-degree temperature rise goal in reach, Al Jaber set out an agenda for COP28 that includes tripling renewables and doubling green hydrogen production and plans for a “comprehensive transformation” of climate finance that even the most zealous activist would find it hard to argue with.

In short, Al Jaber is talking the talk. While “the proof will be in the pudding”, climate think-tank E3G said Al Jaber’s vision “had the right ingredients” and represented a “step up” in ambition by the UAE, which has set out its own ambitious renewables targets as an example to the world.

Maybe having a big beast from the fossil fuel industry running the show really will deliver the goods in Dubai later this year – let’s all hope so.

As E3G also notes, “the elephant in the room” is the phasing out of fossil fuels, how fast and how hard. For all the ambition in renewables, hydrogen, energy efficiency, finance and the rest, the stark fact is that for this COP – or any COP – to be counted a success, nations such as the UAE are going to have to agree to measures that demand changes in the very bedrock of their economy. That’s when we’ll see which side of history they’re on.