Nikita Mishra
Dec 5, 2023

'Dubai could not hold COP28 without ad and PR firms greenwashing'

With one of the world’s biggest oil producers hosting this year’s COP 28 summit, climate activists are accusing the UAE of using PR and advertising narratives to position itself as a climate leader, despite failing to meet its renewable energy targets.

UAE Industry and Advanced Technology Minister and president of COP28, Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber. Photo: Getty Images
UAE Industry and Advanced Technology Minister and president of COP28, Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber. Photo: Getty Images

2023 was the hottest year in human history. Despite the escalating and devastatingly apparent impact of climate change—the undeniable involvement of major fossil fuel players such as Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco, persist in receiving support from the world's leading advertising and public relations firms.

Against this backdrop, the United Nations COP28 summit unfolds in Dubai from November 30 to December 12, gathering around 70,000 people for what is deemed the largest and most high-stakes climate conference globally. World leaders engage in tense talks to address the pressing climate crisis and establish targets to mitigate its effects.

Photo: Rula Rouhana/Reuters

However, Dubai—known for private yachts and carbon-heavy opulent lifestyle—is an odd choice for a global climate conference. Hardly surprising that the president of the conference is UAE’s minister of industry and advanced technology and also in charge of a state oil company, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company or Adnoc. Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber has sparked a controversy with his assertion that eliminating fossil fuels lacks scientific basis for curbing global temperature increases.

Jaber's exact quote, as first reported by The Guardian reads: “There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C,” Jaber said during a late November climate panel hosted by the climate non-profit She Changes Climate.

He further seemed to push back against a fossil fuel phase-out entirely: “​​Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

The intricacies of terms like fossil fuel phase-out and phase-down which have no fixed agreed definitions further complicate matters. It is also compounded by the uncertain role of emission-reducing technologies like carbon capture and storage.

The optics of how PR and ad agencies paved the way for a Dubai-led COP

Highlighting the influence of PR and advertising agencies, climate activist group Clean Creatives exposes the ties between these agencies and the UAE's oil and gas companies, asserting that the agencies played a pivotal role in securing the bid for COP28. 

“The UAE could not host COP28 without ad and PR firms greenwashing for fossil fuels,” says executive director Duncan Meisel.

The report reveals 11 hidden contracts between agencies and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) and Masdar, the UAE's clean energy company.Meisel also finds that communications between the companies and COP28 were at times indistinguishable in the run up to the summit. 

"FARA filings show that Masdar hired First International Resources to “strengthen the overall reputation and standing of the UAE, His Excellency Dr. Sultan Al Jaber and COP28 among Western audiences” and “most effectively inoculate Dr. Al Jaber and COP28 from any potential criticism and generate increased Western support for COP28 team” adds Nayantara Dutta, research director of Clean Creatives.

The 10 PR agencies—APCO, ASDA'A BCW, CT Group, Edelman, FGS Global, First International Resources, FleishmanHillard, Omnia, Teneo and Viola Communications —were hired to promote the UAE and COP28 talks.

A further eight agencies—All About Brands, Boopin, Brand Lounge, Fusion5, Hill & Knowlton, Markettiers, Memac Ogilvy and Publicis Sapient MENA —held nine contracts with MASDAR and Adnoc and 18 contracts with other fossil fuel companies from 2021 to 2023 (27 in total).

The 18 agencies working on COP28, Masdar and Adnoc from 2021 to 2023 have a total of 64 known fossil fuel contracts between 2021 to 2023 (26 contracts for the UAE, COP28, Masdar and Adnoc and 38 for other fossil fuel polluters).

"In June 2023, Masdar released its Pioneering Energy campaign, which highlights renewable energy projects in Indonesia and Uzbekistan. Masdar has a history of rallying support amongst Asian countries, especially when they hired Edelman to lobby for Masdar City to become the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2009. Federal filings show that Edelman conducted on-the-ground research and outreach to several Asian countries, including Nepal, Armenia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Korea, Brunei and Malaysia," adds Dutta. 

What's at stake

UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a stark warning to oil and gas producers at the opening ceremony. He said they must phase out fossil fuels completely and align with the 1.5-degree Celsius limit to avoid catastrophic climate change. The 1.5-degree limit is the goal set by the Paris Agreement in 2015 to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. To achieve this, the world needs to slash fossil fuel use by 43% by 2030 and by more than 75% by 2050.

Despite these goals, host UAE lacks compliance plans. The state-owned oil company, Adnoc is investing $150 billion to expand oil and gas production by 7.5 billion barrels by 2027. Not only will it violate the net zero 2050 scenario set by the International Energy Agency, which requires 90% of that oil to stay in the ground but is also a PR blitz to mislead the public and help UAE clean its image. 

Meisel added: " This is our first year tracking all of the agencies involved with the COP, but it’s clear that the unmanageable contradiction of an oil industry CEO running the UN climate talks has required an unusual amount of PR and ad help. The fact that the Adnoc-owned Masdar is listed as the client in some of the contracts to promote COP28 is simply bizarre, and unlike anything that’s ever been seen before.

"The effort to greenwash polluters makes it harder for these meetings to focus on the real problem at hand, which is fossil fuel pollution."


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