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A record number of fossil fuel representatives are at this year's COP28 climate talks

More than 2,400 fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists have been accredited for the U.N. climate talks in Dubai - a record. Meanwhile negotiators are wrestling with calls to end all new oil, gas and coal projects to curb climate change.
Giuseppe Cacace
AFP via Getty Images
More than 2,400 fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists have been accredited for the U.N. climate talks in Dubai - a record. Meanwhile negotiators are wrestling with calls to end all new oil, gas and coal projects to curb climate change.

The United Nations climate change talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, have broken a record for the largest number of fossil fuel representatives to attend, according to a new analysis.

Nearly four times the number of representatives and employees of fossil fuel companies have registered for access to this year's climate talks, known as COP28, compared to last year's talks in Egypt. There are only 2.5 times more registered attendees this year compared to last year. That's according to a new analysis from the Kick Big Polluters Out Coalition, which is composed of more than 450 groups involved in environmental and climate action.

The analysis counted at least 2,400 fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists at the talks. Pascoe Sabido, a researcher at the Belgian nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory, which is part of the coalition and helped with the analysis, says he was surprised at "just the sheer, sheer number" of oil and gas industry-affiliated attendees.

"It matters because these talks are going to be really important for deciding, do we continue with oil and gas, or do we phase out fossil fuels?" Sabido says.

The numbers come from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which published the provisional attendance list at the beginning of the talks. Sabido says he and his team identified fossil fuel-affiliated attendees as people who work for fossil fuel companies or for companies whose main activity relates to fossil fuels. They also counted people who work for and are part of the delegations of fossil fuel trade groups and lobbying groups. More fossil fuel-affiliated delegates are registered than all the delegates from the 10 most climate-vulnerable countries combined, according to the analysis.

The U.N. climate talks in Dubai are the seventh that University of Colorado Boulder environmental studies professor Max Boykoff has attended. He says he feels the heavy presence of the oil and gas industry at this year's talks, and he says the oil industry's posture reflects that.

"The United Arab Emirates Energy and Infrastructure minister talked about this meeting being the most 'inclusive' of all meetings in the past," Boykoff says. "His use of the word 'inclusive' was a way to talk about how this has involved fossil fuel interests unlike ever before."

Boykoff says some might argue that it's important for the oil industry to be present and vocal at the talks. But climate experts raise concerns that industry's outsized influence at COP28 could slow the kinds of change that mainstream climate science says are necessary to stave off the worst-case scenarios from global warming.

"As they lead the framing of the negotiations, it can also steer us towards the ongoing status quo, which is not good for the climate," Boykoff says.

One of the biggest debates at these climate talks will be around the future of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal.

Participants at the climate talks are debating language to "phase out" fossil fuels versus language to "phase down" fossil fuels. Phasing out means moving away from oil, gas and coal to cleaner energy like solar and wind plus batteries — and sometimes hydropower and nuclear. Phasing down would leave a longer future for planet-heating energy sources.

Boykoff, who was a contributing author for the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, notes that the science says a "phase out" of fossil fuels is necessary and urgent. The oil industry is arguing for a slower "phase down" of fossil fuels, delaying the transition to cleaner energy. "This is a big battle," Boykoff says.

At the 2022 climate talks in Egypt, major fossil fuel producing nations beat back efforts to issue a statement that would have called for a rapid cut in the use of fossil fuels.

"It's an irony not lost on anyone here at COP28 that as negotiators are working through the night to see if they can agree on fossil fuel phase-out or phase-down text, fossil fuel company representatives outnumber delegates from the most climate vulnerable countries several times over," says Jacqueline Peel, professor of law at the University of Melbourne and director of Melbourne Climate Futures, in an email from Dubai.

She adds: "The stakes for the climate are very high at this COP."

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Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.