UN climate talks have focused on renewable energy for too long, ExxonMobil chief says

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UN climate talks on how to limit global warming have focused on renewable energy for too long, according to the chief executive of ExxonMobil, the biggest western oil supermajor.

In an interview with the Financial Times at COP28 in Dubai on Saturday, Darren Woods said that talks on the energy transition had concentrated on “the electron solution”, while neglecting the role to be played by hydrogen, biofuels and carbon capture.

“The transition is not limited to just wind, solar and EVs,” said Woods. “Carbon capture is going to play a role. We’re good at that. We know how to do it, we can contribute. Hydrogen will play a role. Biofuels will play a role.”

It is the first time an Exxon chief executive has attended the event, and his presence has prompted climate experts to criticise the industry’s continued efforts to delay action and its oversized influence at the UN summit.

In Dubai, a group of countries are pushing for a global agreement to phase out fossil fuels to achieve the Paris accord goal of ideally limiting the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030. 

Woods said the discussions had “put way too much emphasis on getting rid of fossil fuels, oil and gas, and not . . . on dealing with the emissions associated with them”.

He said there would be “continued demand” for oil and gas, and advocated for a “continuum where in some places you will completely replace the combustion of oil and gas and coal, and other places you’ll deal with the emissions associated with it.”

Other prominent industry bosses to attend the summit included Oxy’s Vicki Hollub, ENI head Claudio Descalzi and RWE’s Markus Krebber.

Woods said conversations on climate change had “moved away, are moving away” from “aspirational pledges and hopeful targets that are set decades into the future” and towards “action-oriented activities, more of a plan”.

“The discussions are starting to comprehend more than just emissions, but to actually take into consideration the multiple challenges that are associated with the transition.”

“So, think [of] energy poverty, affordability, reliability, national security, energy security — all those things are starting to be brought into the equation.”

In October, Exxon announced it would buy Pioneer Natural Resources in a $60bn deal, handing Exxon a dominant position in the US’s vast Permian Basin and doubling its production in the oilfield to 1.3mn barrels of oil equivalent per day. At the time, Exxon said the deal would allow it to rapidly boost production.

“Exxon’s attendance is very much part and parcel of the fossil fuel industries’ decades of efforts to infiltrate and corrupt attempts by policymakers to meaningfully address the climate crisis,” said Geoffrey Supran, lead author of a report in the journal Science this year which found that Exxon scientists correctly predicted global warming as early as the 1970s.

However, the company continued to promote doubt on the matter in public communications. Supran, a climate expert at the University of Miami said Exxon had “not changed its stripes” and was still attempting to delay global efforts to tackle climate change. 

He said Woods’ participation at COP28 suggested the industry is “shaking in its boots” because calls for the end of fossil fuels were becoming louder.

Woods has previously denied claims that Exxon spread disinformation about climate and in 2021 said that the company has “long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change”. 

On Saturday, Woods told the FT that the company has “always focused on doing the right thing”.

He added: “Frankly, the people who want to criticise us for coming in — I don’t spend much time thinking about that. I focus more on what we can do to contribute and meet the needs in society.”

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