Susana Hancock: Hard to locate optimism at petroleum-hosted climate summit


Last year, I had a one-on-one conversation with the sustainability lead for one of the world’s biggest oil companies. I had lots of questions but figured it was best to start with a softball.

Susana Hancock in Portland in March 2023. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“You’re the brains of greenwashing, but you also have two young kids. How do you sleep at night?”

“Well, Susana,” he paused. “I stay at work ‘til the kids are asleep. And honestly? The best would be if we all die in some sort of crash before they are old enough to understand my job.”

After that, the rest of the questions on my list seemed irrelevant.

How is it that, in 2023, with everything we know about climate science, corporations are still headstrong on convincing the world’s population that petroleum not only has nothing to do with environmental change but is even a net positive? His answer? A shrug. “Money? I like vacations.”

On the eve of COP28, the United Nation’s Climate Change conference held this year in Dubai, leaked documents showed that the United Arab Emirates intended to use its COP28 presidency to broker deals supporting its oil industry with 20 countries, including the United States. Color me shocked. Or, don’t. 

The COP28 president, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, is also the CEO of ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.

The balcony of my Airbnb in Dubai opens to Jebel Ali Power Generation and Water Production Complex, the world’s largest single-site natural gas power generation facility. The triple-digit air quality index, of which the local gas industry is a huge driver, blankets the area in a thick smog that makes the power plant look much farther away than a single metro stop. Ah, yes. The perfect spot to save the world. The disconnect continues inside the venue; coffee for tens of thousands of people is served from single-use Keurig pods.

Perhaps the leak involving Al Jaber is what is needed to push COP28’s transparency.

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change during the Paris Agreement, called the leak a “Volkswagen 2015 moment,” claiming that there is no other option for the UAE to increase “transparency, responsibility and accountability.” Her optimism has always outweighed mine. When I was at the Paris Peace Forum, one of the events I attended on my way to COP28, María Fernanda Espinosa, a former president of the UN General Assembly and a lead negotiator for the Paris Agreement, also exuded confidence in the Dubai team. The UAE needs sustainability, in part because of its empire built on energy and wealth, she argued. Glad someone has trust in the process.

Since the closing of COP27, my biggest fear has been that COP28 ends with the decision that keeping global temperatures below +1.5°C or even +2°C is no longer a possibility without so-called interventions that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Whilst some of my concerns involving climate engineering surround secondary ecosystem impacts and the current lack of scalability, my main one for a petroleum-hosted COP is that falling back on such interventions is a way to push forward further fossil fuel development. After all, Rystad Energy, a Norwegian energy research intelligence company, released Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.’s plans to increase its oil drilling by 42% by 2030. With the CEO of ADNOC elected to pilot global leaders to reinforce 1.5°C commitments, it’s a pill that would be impossible to swallow – even if my throat weren’t so inflamed from the smog. 

On Nov. 17, the world topped +2°C for the first time. And it did again the next day. Troubles continued on the first day of COP28, when the World Meteorological Organization released its provisional State of the Global Climate, announcing that, within a ±0.12°C margin of error, the world has averaged +1.4°C for the year with December temperatures unlikely to dampen the curve. Some of this is certainly the impacts of El Niño, which will likely continue to drive temperatures next spring.

Most of it, however, is us. People. Our constant quest in the global north for more, for bigger, for better.

In a final act on the afternoon of the first day of the summit, COP28 passed Loss and Damage funding, something that made the final text last year in Sharm El-Sheikh to be agreed upon this year. The idea behind Loss and Damage is that wealthier countries – those most responsible for emissions and the climate crisis – are the ones to fund mitigation, adaptation and disaster response for the most vulnerable countries. Theoretically, this is incredibly exciting. However, the pledges made only total $420 million, far short of the billions currently needed and a mere 0.006% of what many of the same donors spent last year on fossil fuel subsidies. 

While a leap toward climate justice, the passing of this fund on the first day also has me double down on my fears.

Will the COP28 presidency push this as a historic action and thus keep the foot on the gas (literally), plowing through any phaseout of fossil fuels? Meanwhile, the noise of private helicopters over the venue interrupts my thoughts and forces me back inside for my next session.

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