The fight against climate change must be pragmatic and sustainable, with no country able to make the transition to clean energy with the “flip of a switch”, the UAE’s Climate Change Special Envoy has said.
Speaking ahead of Cop27 in Egypt this November and Cop28 in the Emirates next year, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, who is also Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and managing director and group chief executive of Adnoc, stressed that energy security and climate action should go hand-in-hand.
“Even in a net zero emissions world, energy security requires that oil and gas be part of the mix,” he told The National.
“We have a responsibility to the billions of people of the world to ensure they have access to energy.”
Dr Al Jaber said the Emirates would host the first “global stock-take” since the 2016 Paris Agreement pledge to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, “leveraging its experience in bridge-building climate diplomacy to drive a ‘leave no one behind’ approach to inclusive climate action.”
“It is not just transitioning a home or a city, but the entirety of the planet,” said Dr Al Jaber. “To build a net zero emissions economy we need to find ways to do almost everything better — the way we live, eat, travel and work — changes that will require action across all parts of society — governments, the private sector, and the public at large.”
Dr Al Jaber set out his ambitions for Cop28, which will be held at Expo City Dubai in November 2023, in the following Q&A with The National.
The National: There are many concerns surrounding global energy supplies and prices. At the same time, record temperatures are focusing greater attention on climate change. How can the world navigate these two seemingly clashing priorities?
Dr Al Jaber: The reality is that energy security and climate action go hand-in-hand. In fact, you can’t have one without the other. The simple fact is that if people’s basic energy needs are not met, economies slow down and that also puts the brakes on climate action.
Policymakers are beginning to understand the fact that the energy transition will not happen with the flip of a switch. They are ready for a pragmatic conversation on what a realistic energy transition looks like.
You need to maintain the current system, while the world still relies on it [and] drive down its emissions, while driving up investment in new energies. Innovative climate action, which involves the fast adoption of renewable energy and other low-carbon sources, has the potential to provide long-lasting energy security. But we are not there yet.
The good news is that renewables accounted for 81 per cent of all new power generation last year, so we are on the right track. But most energy use comes from heavy industry, manufacturing, construction, transport and agriculture. These harder to abate sectors have the biggest impact on climate and need smarter policies, more collaboration and more investment.
And that is where the challenge lies. While a record $365 billion was invested in renewables last year, this is still a fraction of the estimated $250 trillion that is estimated we will need for the energy transition over the next 30 years. We need to accelerate investment but at the same time, we also need recognise that no one country can go it alone. Partnership will be critical.
We need to work together in a managed and staged transition process, one that meets the growing demand for energy with a mix of renewables and [the] least carbon-intensive hydrocarbons.
The National: What needs to happen to achieve each of these priorities?
Dr Al Jaber: It is increasingly clear that no single government or company can make this transition happen. It is a whole-of-society challenge that is simply too big and too expensive for anyone to do alone.
We have to reduce polarisation that exacerbates and reinforces distrust and divisions, and engage in realistic and practical conversations.
We need to find the right balance between government policy and market-based approaches. We have to build bridges and work together across sectors and across regions. Government policy and financing must unlock private sector assets and expertise, including those in the oil and gas sector, and ensure that they are active partners in this global transformation.
We need to talk about a full system change that focuses on demand first, recognising that the heaviest users of energy can only switch to new sources of energy when they are fully available and fully able to supply baseload power. And we have to begin highlighting the importance of changes also in consumer behaviours and lifestyles.
The UAE has already committed to a net zero by 2050 strategic initiative. Globally, a majority of countries have committed to the same ambition.
What remains to be agreed [upon], however, is the pace, sequencing, costs and benefits, as well as the need for different forms of collective, systemic action to reach our ultimate goal of net zero. For the UAE, our goal is an ambitious but pragmatic approach. Our goal is to limit emissions, not progress. That means we have a practical plan that assures both economic and environmental well-being.
We have a responsibility to the billions of people of the world to ensure they have access to energy. Energy they need for their education, for health care and access to social services, and for their jobs and livelihoods.
The expectation is that as renewables and low-carbon options become increasingly available they will replace traditional energy sources, even provide energy to those who have never had it. Even in a net zero emissions world, energy security requires that oil and gas be part of the mix.
Given that oil and gas are still expected to account for as much as a third of the energy mix by 2050, producers and policymakers need to work together to make sure that each new barrel is less carbon-intensive than the last one, and that the transition to renewables is expedited and facilitated. This is why partnership and collaboration are essential.
The energy transition depends on our ability to come together to achieve a common goal.
The National: What does that energy transition look like globally and how fast can it happen?
Dr Al Jaber: We have to put this into perspective — it is not just transitioning a home or a city, but the entirety of the planet. To build a net zero emissions economy we need to find ways to do almost everything better — the way we live, eat, travel and work — changes that will require action across all parts of society — governments, the private sector, and the public at large.
Understandably, a transition of this magnitude is daunting and will take time. However, we must remember that the benefits far, far outweigh the costs of inaction.
Critically, we should view climate action and the energy transition as an incredible opportunity for all stakeholders, public and private alike. It promises a future that is not only more environmentally sound but, with the right innovation and investments, offers a wealth of economic gains.
Energy access can be expanded [around] the globe. New markets will emerge. Jobs and livelihoods will be diversified. Entire industries will shift and evolve.
The UAE had the foresight to see this transition coming and establish a pathway towards a prosperous and low-carbon future for the nation. This gave us a chance to move ahead and to consolidate gains, as well as paved the way for our leadership on the energy transition. We understand the progressive approach that is needed for such a monumental “world-building” task.
Renewables like solar and wind, as well as other clean technologies like hydrogen and advanced nuclear, must all ramp up exponentially. At the same time, the oil and gas sector need to continue making emissions reductions a priority.
Reduced emissions from changes such as energy-efficiency improvements would be a key aspect of fossil-fuel decarbonisation. It is estimated that every 10 per cent increase in the efficiency of oil and gas production can cut emissions intensity by 4 per cent. Electrifying extraction and refining equipment can also help to decarbonise activities.
Fossil-fuel producers can also manage fugitive methane emissions with equipment such as vapour recovery units and practices such as proactive leak detection. Finally, carbon capture and storage could reduce emissions from oil and gas processes that produce highly concentrated streams of carbon dioxide.
These are efficiencies that help slow down increases in emissions while meeting global energy needs, in a way that is both fiscally and sustainably sound. Adnoc has been a pioneer in all these activities and will continue to push the envelope of what is possible to drive down the carbon intensity of its products.
Supportive fiscal policies through tax incentives, operational efficiency via technology, greater commitments to reduce methane and flaring, and significantly greater investment in carbon-capture technologies will be critical.
The National: What role do you see specifically for the UAE and oil-producing countries in these efforts?
Dr Al Jaber: The UAE is well positioned to lead efforts that will result in lower emissions, as well as promote greater deployment of renewables and innovative technologies. We can show the world how it is possible to meet the needs of today, and build the world of tomorrow.
Under the direction of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, we have cemented our role as a renewable energy powerhouse. This is the result of foresight, determination and a fundamental belief that you do not have to make trade-offs between a sensible energy transition policy and economic development.
We established Masdar in 2006 as a pioneer in renewable energy. Today, the UAE is also home to three of the largest and lowest-cost solar plants in the world, and we are the first country in the region to build a large-scale carbon capture, utilisation and storage facility.
In addition, we are investing in new zero carbon energies such as hydrogen and laying the foundation for the hydrogen value chain alongside our partners in Europe, South Korea and Japan.
We remain a reliable supplier of some of the least carbon-intensive oil and gas, and are constantly making operational improvements to decrease its intensity another 25 per cent by the end of the decade.
This is the holistic approach that we will take to address the “trilemma” for affordable, accessible and sustainable energy. We can keep the lights on and protect economies and livelihoods, while undertaking a major energy transition.
It won’t be easy or simple but we believe this is the best way forward to slowing global warming and accelerating progress on climate action.
These are lessons, experiences and knowledge we will be sharing, and advocating, through to Cop28 UAE.
The National: The UAE is preparing to host Cop28 in November 2023. How is the UAE preparing for the summit to be a platform for progress?
Dr Al Jaber: As we prepare to host Cop28 next year, we will continue this focus on practical and positive solutions that drive progress for the climate and the economy. We will ensure Cop28 gives a voice to all parts of society, the public and private sector and the energy industry.
Crucially, Cop28 UAE will deliver the first global stock-take since the Paris Agreement — a comprehensive evaluation of progress against climate goals. The stock-take will identify the gaps we have to bridge and will give us a common framework for practical action on mitigation, adaptation and climate finance.
In short, we will agree on a clear road map to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, accelerate climate progress and reinforce climate resilience.
As Cop28 host, the UAE will act as a powerful convener, leveraging its experience in bridge-building climate diplomacy to drive a “leave no one behind” approach to inclusive climate action.