Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, President of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference, speaks at a presentation of the Industrial Transition Accelerator during day two of the high-level segment of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference at Expo City Dubai on December 02, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
CNN  — 

Sultan Al Jaber, the oil executive who is leading the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, sent shockwaves through the gathering by claiming in the days before the UN-backed talks that there is “no science” that says phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to keep global warming under a critical threshold — comments Al Jaber said were misinterpreted.

Al Jaber held a surprise news conference Monday where he fiercely defended his commitment to climate science, after an increasing number of scientists and advocates expressed alarm at the comments and concern for the direction of the talks.

The future role of fossil fuels is one of the most controversial issues countries are grappling with at the COP28 climate summit. While some are pushing for a “phase-out,” others are calling for the weaker language of a “phase-down.” Scientific reports have shown that fossil fuels must be rapidly slashed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius — the goal of the Paris climate agreement, and a threshold above which scientists warn it will be more difficult for humans and ecosystems to adapt.

Al Jaber made the remarks during the She Changes Climate panel event on November 21, which came to light on Sunday in a story published by the Guardian, and in video that CNN has reviewed. Al Jaber was asked by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and current chair of the Elders Group, an independent group of global leaders, if he would lead on phasing out fossil fuels.

In his response, Al Jaber told Robinson, “there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5.” He said he had expected to come to the She Changes Climate meeting to have a “sober and mature conversation” and was not “signing up to any discussion that is alarmist.”

He continued that the 1.5-degree goal was his “north star,” and a phase-down and phase-out of fossil fuel was “inevitable” but “we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it.”

In an increasingly fractious series of responses to Robinson pushing him on the point, Al Jaber asked her “please, help me, show me a roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuels that will allow for sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

Al Jaber’s presidency of the COP28 summit has been controversial. The Emirati businessman is the UAE’s climate envoy and chairs the board of directors of its renewables company, but he also heads the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

Al Jaber told reporters Monday, “I have always been very clear on the fact that we are making sure that everything we do is centered around the science.”

“I honestly think there is some confusion out there, and misrepresentation and misinterpretation,” he said, adding, “I have said over and over that the phase down and the phase out of fossil fuel is inevitable. In fact, it is essential … it needs to be orderly, fair, just and responsible.”

A spokesperson for the COP28 team told CNN in a statement on Sunday “this story is just another attempt to undermine the Presidency’s agenda, which has been clear and transparent and backed by tangible achievements by the COP President and his team.”

“The COP President is clear that phasing down and out of fossil fuels is inevitable and that we must keep 1.5C within reach,” adding, “we are excited with the progress we have made so far and for the delivery of an ambitious (global stocktake) decision. Attempts to undermine this will not soften our resolve.”

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Fossil fuels are the main driver of the climate crisis and as the world continues to burn oil, coal and gas, global temperatu