ABU DHABI — If the world gets lucky, this could be the year fossil fuel producers and climate activists bury their hatchets and join hands to reduce emissions and ensure our planet’s future.
If that sounds hopelessly Utopian, take that up with the leaders of this resource-rich, renewables-generating Middle Eastern monarchy. The United Arab Emirates is determined to inject specificity, urgency, and pragmatism into a process that often has lacked all three: the 28th convening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP 28, which the UAE will host from November 30 to December 12.
To kick off 2023, the oil and gas and climate communities gathered this weekend for the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum, launching the annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. After decades of mutual mistrust, there is a growing recognition they can’t live without each other.
Thank Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine, and his ongoing weaponization of energy, for injecting a new dose of hard-headed reality into climate conversations. It’s seldom been so clear that energy security and cleaner energy are indivisible. The guiding principle is “the energy sustainability trilemma,” defined as the need to balance energy reliability, affordability, and sustainability.
What’s contributing to this new pragmatism is a recognition by much of the climate community that the energy transition to renewables can’t be achieved without fossil fuels, so they must be made cleaner. They have come to accept that natural gas, in particular liquified natural gas (LNG), with half the emissions footprint of coal, provides a powerful bridging fuel.
Once derided by green activists, nuclear power is also winning over new fans—particularly when it comes to the small, modular plants where there are fewer concerns over safety and weapons proliferation.
For their part, almost all major oil and gas producers, who once viewed climate activists with disdain, now embrace the reality of climate science and are investing billions of dollars in renewables and efforts to make their fossil fuels cleaner.
“Every serious hydrocarbon producer knows the future, in a world of declining use of fossil fuels, is to be low cost, low risk and low carbon,” said David Goldwyn, the former State Department special envoy for energy. “The only way to ensure we do this is to have industry at the table.”
Nowhere is this shift among climate activists more evident than in Germany, where Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, the Green Party leader, is serving as the pragmatist-in-chief.
Habeck, who serves as Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, has been the driving force behind extending the life of the country’s three nuclear plants through April and in launching Germany’s first LNG import terminal in December, with as many as five more to follow.
“I am ultimately responsible for the security of the German energy system,” Habeck told Financial Times’ reporter Guy Chazan in a sweeping profile of the German politician. “So, the buck stops with me. … I became minister to make tough decisions, not to be Germany’s most popular politician.”
Some climate activists were aghast this Thursday when the UAE named Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as president of this year’s COP 28.
“This appointment goes beyond putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Teresa Anderson of ActionAid, a development charity. “Like last year’s summit, we’re increasingly seeing fossil fuel interests taking control of the process and shaping it to meet their own needs.”
What that overlooks is that Al Jaber’s rich background in both renewables and fossil fuels make him an ideal choice at a time when efforts to address climate change have been far too slow, lacking the inclusivity to produce more transformative results.
Al Jaber is CEO of the world’s 14th largest oil producer, but he at the same time was the founding CEO of Masdar, one of the world’s largest renewables investors, where he remains chairman. He also represents a country that despite its resource riches has become a major nuclear power producer, was the first Middle East country to join the Paris Climate Agreement and was the first Middle East country to set out a roadmap to net zero emissions by 2050.
Over the past 15 years, the UAE has invested $40 billion in renewable energy and clean tech globally. In November it signed a partnership with the United States to invest an additional $100 billion in clean energy. Some 70% of the UAE economy is generated outside the oil and gas sector, making it an exception among major producing countries in its diversification.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, has explained his country’s approach this way: “There will be a time, 50 years from now, when we load the last barrel of oil aboard the ship. The question is… are we going to feel sad? If our investment today is right, I think—dear brothers and sisters—we will celebrate that moment.”
Al Jaber, speaking to the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum on Saturday, captured his ambition to drive faster and more transformative results at COP 28.
“We are way off track,” said Al Jaber.
“The world is playing catchup when it comes to the key Paris goal of holding global temperatures down to 1.5 degrees,” he said. “And the hard reality is that in order to achieve this goal, global emissions must fall 43% by 2030. To add to that challenge, we must decrease emissions at a time of continued economic uncertainty, heightened geopolitical tensions and increasing pressure on energy.”
He called for “transformational progress… through game-changing partnerships, solutions and outcomes.” He said the world must triple renewable energy generation from eight terawatt hours to 23, and more than double low-carbon hydrogen production to 180 million tons for industrial sectors, which have the hardest carbon footprint to abate.
“We will work with the energy industry on accelerating the decarbonization, reducing methane, and expanding hydrogen,” said Al Jaber. “Let’s keep our focus on holding back emissions, not progress.”
If that sounds Utopian, let’s have more of it.
— Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.