EU climate chief Frans Timmermans defended the choice of a petro-industry chief as president of the next UN climate summit, claiming Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi state oil company Adnoc, will be well placed to help tackle global fossil fuel “tough cookies” and swing them behind the energy transition.

Al Jaber’s appointment to lead COP28 met with a volley of complaints from some climate activists who questioned a conflict of interest between the imperatives of the summit – which the UAE will host at the end of this year – and his role leading Adnoc, the 12th largest oil company globally by output and with plans to be producing 5 million barrels of crude a day by 2030.

But Timmermans – the European Commission’s Green Deal chief who leads EU negotiations at COP summits – said: “There was some criticism... he’s CEO of an oil company but look at his impressive track record.

“He started with sustainability policies long before anyone else in the oil and gas sector was convinced,” said the EU chief, referring to Al Jaber’s role in founding Masdar, the Abu Dhabi-based global renewables giant which was set up in 2006 and which he still chairs.

“We have some really tough cookies in that sector that we need to address, but I want them on board – I don’t want them vilified.

“I want him... to help convince other executives in oil & gas to finally start investing in the transition towards renewable energy,” said Timmermans, adding that the fossil fuel sector has assets that will be “essential in a post-carbon world” such as logistics capabilities and scientific know-how.

US climate envoy John Kerry has already also publicly backed Al Jaber’s appointment but the controversy is set to rumble on, with campaigning stalwart Greenpeace saying it is “deeply alarmed” by the development and one group likening the decision to handing over the UN climate process to a petrostate.

Timmermans made his comments at the ADSW Summit, which Masdar itself is hosting as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Discussion of COP28 dominated Monday's opening day of the event, with Al Jaber himself pledging that the UAE – where he also serves as industry and advanced technology minister – would deliver a summit that “moves from goals to getting it done, across mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage”.

'Last opportunity'

Simon Stiell, appointed last year as executive secretary of the UN’s climate change secretariat, told the ADSW Summit that COP28 would be “as critical a moment as Paris was”, referring to the historic agreement struck at COP21 in the French capital.

The summit later this year will unveil the results of the first ‘Global Stocktake’ of progress towards the goals of Paris – widely expected to show the world seriously off course – which Stiell said would also highlight actions that need to be taken.

“What COP28 offers us is that opportunity to take stock but [also] to course correct,” said the UN climate chief, adding: “This could be the last opportunity to have to interfere with the process to get us on the path we need.”