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Fake Twitter profiles, Wikipedia editing and PR battles: Inside the push to greenwash the COP28 climate summit

<i>Kamran Jebreili/AP</i><br/>Sultan al-Jaber
Kamran Jebreili/AP
Sultan al-Jaber

By Ivana Kottasová, CNN

(CNN) — The optics of a major oil-producing country organizing the world’s most important climate conference, and appointing an oil company CEO to lead it, are not lost on anyone – including, it seems, the hosts: the United Arab Emirates.

The country has embarked on a major PR campaign to boost its green credentials ahead of the COP28 UN climate summit in Dubai later this year, prompting heavy criticism from climate groups and some politicians.

At the same time, researchers are raising red flags over allegations of more covert influence campaigns, as members of the COP28 team were found by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the Guardian to have been editing Wikipedia pages about the conference’s chief, and an army of fake social media accounts has appeared, promoting the country’s climate record.

The UAE insists it is “ideally suited” to host COP28, but some climate researchers are concerned these campaigns point to a lack of genuine ambition for the crucial summit, which comes as the world experiences record-breaking heat, deadly rain and flooding, and devastating storms.

It “raises a lot of alarm bells about how much these kinds of influence operations are going to ramp up and become more sophisticated and complex as we get nearer to the time,” said Jennie King, the head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

The controversial road to COP

The climate summit takes place at a different location each year, with responsibility for hosting rotating among five regional groups.

Other COP summits have also been mired in controversy – and most ended up in deals described, at best, as underwhelming. The 2018 conference took place in Katowice, a town in the middle of Poland’s coal country. The UK, which hosted the 2021 summit in Glasgow, is a major oil and gas producer.

But the UAE stands out because of the way it chose to intertwine the summit with its oil business.

In January, the UAE announced Sultan Al Jaber would be the summit president, to the horror of many climate groups. Al Jaber is the UAE’s climate envoy and the founder of a renewable energy company, but he is also CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

The COP28 team told CNN Al Jaber “has a single-minded focus on delivering a transformational COP that unites the world around tangible climate action.” But for critics, it is a clear conflict of interest to have the head of a huge fossil fuel company presiding over a climate conference.

And it wasn’t just climate organizations that objected. In May, more than 100 members of the US Congress and the European Parliament called for him to step down, claiming his appointment risked undermining the negotiations.

Al Jaber’s subsequent comments have done little to calm their concerns. He was criticized in May when he called for a phase out of “fossil fuel emissions,” rather than the fossil fuels themselves, which seemed to leave the door open for continued use of oil, coal and gas while relying on technology to deal with the planet-heating pollution they produce.

But Al Jaber has also received some important endorsements. US climate envoy John Kerry told Associated Press that he was “a terrific choice,” citing his commitment to expanding renewable energy. The EU climate chief Frans Timmermans said he had “confidence” in Al Jaber, highlighting his track record as someone who “started with sustainability policies long before anyone else in the oil and gas sector.”

Al Jaber has recently made more ambitious statements – saying the world must “phase down” fossil fuels themselves – but has so far avoided calling for the complete phase-out of oil, coal and gas that scientific organizations such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say is essential to tackle the climate crisis.

It’s not just what’s being said in speeches that is concerning some climate groups; it’s also what’s unfolding online.

In May, members of the COP28 team were accused of attempting to “greenwash” Al Jaber’s image through edits to his Wikipedia page, as first reported by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the Guardian.

The log of edits shows that one user, whose identity is unknown but disclosed being paid by ADNOC, requested references to a major oil deal struck by Al Jaber be removed and that references to critical media coverage be deleted.

An admin rejected the edits, saying “well sourced material that includes pertinent information… would always be retained.” The COP28 team did not respond to CNN’s specific questions about the Wikipedia allegations.

Then, in June, researchers started drawing attention to certain Twitter activity.

Climate Action Against Disinformation Project published research last month flagging more than two dozen Twitter accounts that displayed “unusual quote-tweeting behavior” on tweets from either the UAE’s main COP28 Twitter account or other accounts posting about COP28. “These accounts all quote-tweeted many of the same tweets, using similar (but not identical) language, often adding hashtags associated with sustainability or net zero,” the research said.

The same month, disinformation expert Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, uncovered a large number of fake Twitter accounts promoting the UAE’s environmental record and tweeting in support of Al Jaber. In a Substack post describing the operation, Jones showed how many of these accounts used stock images, AI-generated images or those found online as profile pictures, and have detailed bios that make them appear legitimate.

King said that while it’s impossible to definitively say the accounts are affiliated to the UAE or funded by anybody involved in the COP summit, “they do seem to align uncannily with the key messages that are coming out of petrochemical states and in particular, the UAE.”

Data from Twitter on the number of accounts by country that the company blocked last year due to state-backed influence operations shows the UAE very near the top of the list.

While the UAE COP28 presidency team did not answer specific questions about the Twitter accounts, in June, a COP28 spokesperson told the Guardian the accounts were “generated by outside actors unconnected to Cop28 and are clearly designed to discredit Cop28 and the climate process.”

A fossil fuel state

The UAE rejects criticism that it is not up to the job of hosting the world’s biggest climate summit.

It was the first in the Middle East to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate and also the first in the region to set 2030 and 2050 emission reduction targets, the COP28 team told CNN. The country upped its climate target this week, pledging to cut planet-heating pollution by 40% below a “business as usual” scenario by 2030 – up from a previous target of 31%. It has committed to reaching net zero by 2050.

UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment told CNN in a statement that the new target showed “the UAE is prepared to ‘walk the talk’ on climate action.

Climate Action Tracker, a watchdog that assesses national climate plans, said the UAE’s new target was “an improvement on its 2022 submission.” However, it stressed that the country’s current policies were “likely not enough to reach its target” because they include expanding, rather than reducing or oil and gas production.

Fossil fuels remain a key source of wealth for the UAE, with the oil and gas industry responsible for 30% of the country’s GDP, according to official government data. While the country is investing heavily in renewable energy, it is also planning to expand its oil and gas production.

ADNOC, the state-owned company headed by Al Jaber, has announced a major five-year $150 billion expansion plan, which will see an increase in its oil-producing capacity to five million barrels per day by 2025, up from 4 million in 2020 and planning major expansion of its biggest field, the Upper Zakum oil field.

The UAE, however, has been spending lots of money to emphasize how green it is.

Filings with the US Justice Department show that the government and various state-run companies have hired some of the world’s biggest PR companies to boost the country’s climate image.

While it is usual for COP hosts to engage PR services, some experts say the UAE has been particularly ambitious in its push.

The UAE is among the most active countries when it comes to image-boosting campaigns, said Kat Ainger, an editor at the Corporate Europe Observatory, a group that researches lobbying. “Where there are figures published, for example in the US, you can see that the UAE is one of the very top spenders globally and when you [consider] its population, it’s really disproportionate compared to countries like China or India,” she told CNN.

A UAE government official told CNN in an email that the large amount of money the country spends on lobbying and PR campaigns in the US is not unusual, given the close relationship between the US and UAE. The official said UAE has built an “enduring partnership” with the US on a number of issues, including regional security, generate economic prosperity, climate change, food security, and multilateral action.

A crucial summit

One of the reasons that many climate groups are so concerned is that this summit will be crucial for the future of the planet.

Not only does it come at a time where the world is seeing climate chaos firsthand, but this summit is seen as particularly important because it will include a “global stocktake,” where countries will assess how far they have come on cutting planet-heating pollution and ensuring global temperatures don’t rise beyond a critical tipping point.

Eight years after striking a landmark climate agreement in Paris, progress has been far from sufficient, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which means negotiators in Dubai must come up with a plan to slash emissions more quickly.

The IPCC is clear on what needs to happen: The world must stop burning fossil fuels, which produce around 75% of human-caused planet-heating pollution.

Climate groups say serious concerns remain about whether the UAE can provide the level of ambition needed.

“The country responsible not only for physically hosting people and setting the tenor and the tone of the event, but also for coordinating the agenda and setting out what the key articles of negotiation and focus are going to be over the next six to eight months, is very clearly working against its own economic business model in hosting the event,” King told CNN.

The UAE does not agree. The country is “ideally suited to host” the summit, a spokesperson for the COP28 presidency told CNN.

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