‘It was a robust conversation’: Mary Robinson on her ‘testy’ exchange with Cop28 president Sultan Al-Jaber

After their pre-Cop online clash, the chair of the Elders and the lead negotiator at Cop28 reached a detente of sorts

Mary Robinson had a face-to-face meeting over the weekend with Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, the lead negotiator at Cop28 who is trying to fashion a momentous outcome in coming hours. It was their first contact since their pre-Cop online exchange that was described by others as “ill-tempered”, “testy” and “a man talking over a woman”.

Their latest engagement suggested a detente of sorts. Did he respond to the controversy? “Nothing, really,” she says. “We both agreed that it was a robust conversation and I said ‘and happily, it has put science right at the top of the agenda’, and he agreed.”

Asked about the tone of their earlier encounter, she declined to comment. He infamously noted science did not say the phasing out of fossil fuels – the flashpoint issue here – was necessary to contain global temperatures to within 1.5 degrees, a view contrary to established, clear-cut research.

Robinson, the chair of the Elders, was upbeat about aspects of the meeting. “Dr Sultan greeted me and spoke about his desire for an ambitious Cop outcome aligned with 1.5 degrees. We discussed the need for a package coming out of the global stocktake, including full fossil fuel phase-out, triple renewable energy and just transition both for workers and community – and for clean and accessible energy.


“I told him we need to see a full fossil fuel phase-out in the final text. And he said ‘judge me by the results’, and he did say ‘the doubters will be surprised’. Now we need countries to work to get this done.”

There was a positive start to Cop28, with the loss-and-damage fund agreed and money going into it, but Robinson is worried adaptation – supporting vulnerable countries to prepare for inevitable impacts including extreme weather events – may become the victim of a classic Cop trade-off if there is more emphasis on mitigation, where wealthy countries have to channel efforts into slashing emissions. The long-awaited “global goal on adaptation” to drive political action and finance on the same scale as mitigation has made progress since.

On whether she gets frustrated with countries talking big and then rowing back commitments, she says the Elders (a global leaders’ group set up by Nelson Mandela) is in a position to call out such behaviour, because they are independent, have moral authority “and need to do it. The UN doesn’t do it. Nobody else does it and so we do it across the board. Nobody is immune from that.”

On the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists present, she says: “I’m concerned about a ridiculous possibility that we will allow in this Cop more polluting through fossil fuel so that people can make money from that, and then make more money from carbon capture [technologies], and they happen to be the same people, by and large.”

There’s a $27 trillion estimate to develop fully the option, which would inevitably mean the 1.5 degree target is gone, she says. “I’m always of the view that carbon capture has its place. It’s a limited place. It’s not a reason to not phase out fossil fuel, full stop.”

She agrees it would be naive to allow carbon capture and storage (CCS) to be built on a huge scale and trust that it won’t be used for fossil fuel production. So the final text must not have language that permits that – with no reference to “unabated” or “abated”, as that may let Big Oil off the hook.

The is a growing sense the world could make progress at this Cop, with a president confident of a good result aligned with 1.5 degrees. “That could surprise some of the doubters,” she says, “Let’s see”. If a package can be brought together with the stocktake at its heart but including phasing out fossil fuels with a timeline, tripling renewables and achieving far more on adaptation with a “roadmap to doubling the finance”, omens will be good.

She emphasises the need for a commitment to a real opening-up of global financing. Feeding into this is a tax taskforce led by one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, Laurence Tubiana, and ideas for a mosaic of funding sources from Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan and former UK prime minister Gordon Brown.

“There is a real sense that we have to move in that direction ... These are all worthwhile because we need the money and the wealth that has been gained by those who are actually harming our world.” The Elders favour carbon taxes as it moves the agenda more quickly, though it is not liked by the public.

She highlights a very interesting phrase contained in a leaked Opec letter to its members – the world’s biggest oil producers – warning of the risk from caving in on fossil fuels.

“It says ‘we are at a tipping point with irreversible consequences’. This is true ... I turn that round. We’re at a tipping point, and if countries fail to commit to a full fossil fuel phase-out, the future is bleak.”

The needle is shifting, Robinson believes, with well over 100 countries backing full phase-out. “This is the Cop that can give us the future or be the graveyard of 1.5. Which do you want?”

The obvious timeline for phase-out is before 2050, she says, with a 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030, but it will need a “high-ambition coalition” of countries, as happened in Paris in 2015, to secure such an outcome.

The US has said it has moved “largely”, she says, but “that’s not enough. We have a problem of countries that need to move ... the US, Canada, China, India, the EU, all need to move significantly.

“This is transformative stuff. This is real change and we can have it decided here at this Cop. But implementation is transformative and people have to realise that, and it’s transformative also of nature.”

The countries that built their economies on oil must do more to cut their emissions. Those who have become the largest emitters also have to cut; “G20 countries right across the board”. There’s plenty of wealth in India and China, so they cannot hide behind the label of being developing countries.

She believes young people understand this is no longer something that you can just deal with as nations. “This is a global problem with global implications and global opportunities. We are on the cusp of a clean-energy, healthier, safer, climate-secure world, [but] we’re not moving fast enough.”

The world is running out of time; yet, she says, “this is not a big problem for the human race. We can go faster. We should switch the money. It’s not a totally impossible, terribly difficult problem.”

Essentially, it’s about switching much of the $7 trillion in fossil fuel profits and subsidies “that are harming us” to renewables, but particularly to developing countries to help them to develop their electricity and capacity to develop.

Robinson says: “The hope is that we are intelligent enough to realise we are on the cusp of a clean-energy world where the most important thing is that the clean energy is affordable and accessible to everyone.”

Economies built on fossil fuels are slow to recognise the advantage that has given them globally and “the inequality that’s built into that, the injustice, because a lot of it is extracting from developing countries”, she underlines.

“We need to create a community awareness that we have the possibility of not just being on the cusp of a much better world, but actually getting there. Every country has to do its bit to get there, and countries that are in a position to move faster have to move faster.”

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Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times