ABU DHABI – If the world is lucky, this could be the year when fossil fuel producers and climate activists bury their hatchet and band together to reduce emissions and secure our planet’s future.
If that sounds hopelessly utopian, take it up with the leaders of this resource-rich, renewable-energy-producing Middle Eastern monarchy. The UAE is determined to bring specificity, urgency and pragmatism to a process that often lacked all three: the 28th convening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP 28, which the UAE will host from 30 November to December 12.
Kicking off 2023, the oil, gas and climate communities gathered this weekend for the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum and kicked off the annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. After decades of mutual distrust, the realization grows that they cannot live without each other.
Thank Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine and his ongoing arming of energy for bringing a fresh dose of hard-bitten reality to the climate talks. Rarely has it been so clear that energy security and clean energy are inseparable. The guiding principle is the “energy sustainability trilemma”, defined as the need to balance energy reliability, affordability and sustainability.
What is contributing to this new pragmatism is the recognition by much of the climate community that the energy transition towards renewables cannot be achieved without fossil fuels and so they must be made cleaner. They have accepted that natural gas, especially liquefied natural gas (LNG), is a powerful bridging fuel with half the emissions of coal.
Once derided by green activists, nuclear power is also gaining new supporters – particularly among the small, modular plants where there are fewer safety and weapons proliferation concerns.
For their part, almost every major oil and gas producer that climate activists once viewed with contempt is now embracing the reality of climate science and investing billions of dollars in renewable energy and efforts to make their fossil fuels cleaner.
“Any serious hydrocarbon producer knows that in a world of declining fossil fuel use, the future will be low-cost, low-risk, and low-carbon,” said David Goldwyn, former US State Department energy special envoy. “The only way to ensure that is to have industry at the table.”
Nowhere is this shift among climate activists more evident than in Germany, where Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, leader of the Green Party, is serving as chief pragmatist.
Habeck, who serves as Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, was the driving force behind extending the life of the country’s three nuclear power plants to April and bringing Germany’s first LNG import terminal into service in December, with up to five more to follow.
“I am ultimately responsible for the security of Germany’s energy system,” Habeck told Financial Times reporter Guy Chazan in a full portrait of the German politician. “Well, the buck stops with me. … I became a minister to make tough decisions, not to be Germany’s most popular politician.”
Some climate activists were appalled this Thursday when the UAE appointed Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as president of this year’s COP28.
“This appointment goes beyond the transfer of the fox as head of the chicken coop,” said Teresa Anderson of ActionAid, a development charity. “Like last year’s summit, we are increasingly seeing fossil fuel stakeholders taking control of the process and shaping it to suit their own needs.”
What’s overlooked is that Al Jaber’s extensive background in both renewable and fossil fuels makes him an ideal choice at a time when efforts to tackle climate change have been far too slow and he lacked the inclusiveness to pursue more transformative ones to achieve results.
Al Jaber is CEO of the world’s fourteenth-largest oil producer, but he was also the founding CEO of Masdar, one of the world’s largest investors in renewable energy, where he remains chairman. He also represents a country that, despite its resource wealth, has become a major producer of nuclear energy, became the first country in the Middle East to join the Paris Climate Agreement and was the first country in the Middle East to set out a roadmap to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Over the past 15 years, the UAE has invested US$40 billion in renewable energy and clean technology globally. In November, it signed a partnership with the United States to invest another $100 billion in clean energy. Around 70% of the UAE’s economy is generated outside of the oil and gas sector, making it exceptionally diversified among the major producing countries.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, has explained his country’s approach: “In 50 years there will come a time when we will load the last barrel of oil on board the ship. The question is… will we be sad? If our investment is right today, I think – dear brothers and sisters – we will celebrate this moment.”
Al Jaber, speaking before the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum on Saturday, expressed his ambition to deliver faster and more transformative results at COP 28.
“We’re way off track,” said Al Jaber.
“The world is catching up on the important Paris goal of reducing global temperatures to 1.5 degrees,” he said. “And the harsh reality is that global emissions need to fall by 43% by 2030 to meet that target. To amplify this challenge, we must reduce emissions at a time of prolonged economic uncertainty, heightened geopolitical tensions, and increasing energy pressures. ”
He called for “transformative progress… through breakthrough partnerships, solutions and outcomes.” He said the world needs to triple renewable energy generation to 23 from eight terawatt hours and more than double low-carbon hydrogen production to 180 million tons, for industrial sectors that have the hardest carbon footprints to reduce.
“We will work with the energy industry to accelerate decarbonization, reduce methane and scale up hydrogen,” Al Jaber said. “Let’s keep our focus on curbing emissions, not progress.”
If that sounds utopian, let’s have more of it.
— Frederick Kempe is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.