The way to solve climate change is to shut down all fossil fuel production as fast as possible. Isn’t that correct? Actually, no — and the appointment of Dr Sultan Al Jaber on Thursday as President-designate of the Cop28 climate conference shows a more viable path.
Cop28, the annual successor to Cop27 in Egypt last year, will be held at Dubai Expo City in November. It will aim to advance action to reduce emissions responsible for global warming and deal with the consequences of climate change, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Dr Al Jaber is managing director and group chief executive of Adnoc, but before that, he was the founding chief executive of clean energy vehicle Masdar in 2006, and is still chairman there. He is also UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, and has twice been the nation’s climate envoy — from 2010 to 2016 and from 2020 to the present.
He was appointed at Adnoc in 2016 and has transformed the company commercially, in its projects and environmentally.
Key initiatives include the electrification of its offshore installations, the connection of its power system to the Abu Dhabi grid to use exclusively solar and nuclear power, reductions in gas flaring and methane leaks, the expansion into hydrogen production and major plans to scale up carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The carbon intensity of production of its flagship crude grade Murban is less than half the industry average. The company recently completed its acquisition, alongside utility Taqa, of stakes in Masdar’s renewable and hydrogen arms, a transaction championed by Dr Al Jaber.
Masdar is one of the world’s leading international renewable developers, including in countries shunned by western investors such as Uzbekistan and Mauritania.
Yet Adnoc is also expanding its oil production capacity to 5 million barrels per day by 2027, boosting gas output for domestic use and building a major new liquefied natural gas export complex. Some environmentalists see this as incompatible with climate goals
One campaigning organisation compiled attendees of Cop27 it labelled “fossil fuel lobbyists”. Their naughty list included representatives of African utilities using mainly hydroelectric power, a Gulf think tank that researches extensively on sustainability and representatives of another Middle East company that currently produces 60 per cent of its electricity from solar and nuclear power.
The slightest whiff of association with the oil business seems to be a cause for outrage.
Even in global net-zero scenarios by the middle of the century, the world still requires substantial amounts of oil and gas. This is consumed in non-emitting uses, such as plastic production, or is combusted in the CCS process.
For heavy industry, such as steel, fertiliser and cement producers, CCS or hydrogen are the only technically viable low-carbon routes today.
Some residual emissions, for instance from long-distance air travel, will be mopped up by biological methods, such as the expansion of the UAE’s carbon-trapping mangrove forests, or the technological option of direct air capture, which also relies on geological traps found in abundance in the UAE and neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Oman.
The war in Ukraine and the rapidly rising energy bills in Europe have amply illustrated, as Dr Al Jaber often says, that the energy transition is not as simple as flicking a switch from one source to another, and that desperate governments will prioritise energy security over climate.
Genuine energy security comes from a diversity of energy types, geographic sources and delivery routes.
Meanwhile, Germany has hosted three Cop events, the most by any country. It is seen as a renewable leader and would, no doubt, be an acceptable venue again. However, it is currently evicting protesters who are trying to stop the expansion of a coal mine.
The Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Australia are among the contenders to host Cop29. While they all have some environmental achievements, they are heavily reliant on coal, and Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of the dirtiest fossil fuel.
Too many previous Cop summits have been strong on rhetoric, OK on pledges but weak on delivery. That is why worldwide greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high last year despite three decades of climate talks and massive investment in renewables.
At the same time, traditional energy is considered to be expensive and geopolitically insecure, as well as environmentally unsustainable.
Dr Al Jaber is, thus, more emblematic of the energy transition in the Middle East, India, China and Africa, than Europe. Here the approach to fossil fuels is pragmatic, and the leading figures bring a balanced approach to climate and energy.
The President of Cop28 needs to be a figure who is respected internationally and at home, trusted by national leadership, has institutional weight, a high-quality team and an ability to bring together the diverse strands of energy and climate policy.
Dr Al Jaber has an enviable record of making things happen across the renewables, petroleum and climate fields.
He will also be joined in his task by two women with their own strong track records: Minister of State for Youth Shamma Al Mazrui, as the Youth Climate Champion, and Razan Al Mubarak, president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and managing director of Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, as UN Climate Change High-Level champion.
They can ensure that issues of gender, youth and biodiversity receive due weight.
The UAE’s goal of reducing emissions by 31 per cent by 2030, versus a business-as-usual approach, is a major and challenging commitment but one that will have to be repeated in each of the coming decades to achieve the pledge of net zero by 2050.
The same is true of virtually any country.
Renewables and electric vehicles have made impressive progress, and are now often the cheapest solution. They need to expand fast, much faster than they have so far.
At the same time, an approach that combines the strengths of all energy sources will achieve a secure, low-emission system more quickly and reliably and with less political gridlock.
Dr Al Jaber’s key task at Cop28 will be to advance such a system’s practical realisation, in a way that works for each region and country.
Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis