UAE art sustainability COP
The UAE will host the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in November 2023 at Expo City Dubai to unite the world towards agreement on bold, practical, and ambitious solutions to the most pressing global challenge of our time Image Credit: Gulf News

The decision to put the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) in charge of this year’s COP28 climate talks in the United Arab Emirates has been much talked about.

There is an alternative perspective on the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber as president-designate of what is being seen as the most crucial climate-change summit since the Paris treaty was agreed at COP21 in 2015.

Few people are more qualified for the job than Al Jaber who, for the better part of two decades, has had an unrivalled overview and a unique understanding of both sides of the energy equation.

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We all know that the entire planet must transition urgently from dependence on fossil fuels to sustainable alternatives. What’s needed to make that happen, however, are solutions, and developing them at planet-saving scale is going to require three things: money, broad energy expertise, and self-interested motivation.

As the chief executive of ADNOC, one of the world’s largest oil companies, and as a citizen of a country facing its own existential global warming crisis, Al Jaber has all three.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology
Al Jaber has been the man at the helm of a far-sighted enterprise

A post-oil future

US climate envoy John Kerry tweeted that his “unique combination” of roles will “help bring all of the necessary stakeholders to the table to move faster and at scale.”

Al Jaber’s resume speaks volumes. A chemical engineer by training, he began his career at ADNOC, but in 2006 was appointed launch CEO of Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company.

Masdar, whose shareholders include ADNOC and Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi investment company, has since become one of the world’s leading renewable energy firms, with more than $30 billion invested in a broad range of green projects in more than 40 countries.

Masdar is investing in, and developing, a broad range of solutions, from solar energy and wind farms to green hydrogen and grid-level energy storage solutions.

In other words, 17 years ago — almost a decade before the Paris Agreement — the UAE was already laying the groundwork for a post-oil future, and from the outset, Al Jaber has been the man at the helm of that far-sighted enterprise.

Change is coming

No one understands better than the UAEs of the world that change is coming, and coming fast, and that the energy industries upon which the oil states were built must be reinvented if their economies are to survive, let alone continue to thrive.

As the national, state-owned oil company of the UAE, ADNOC’s ultimate focus is on the future well-being of the country and its people, and that future is tied inextricably to its successful transition to sustainable energy. A 2015 study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that if carbon emissions aren’t curbed, much of the Gulf region — including the UAE — could become uninhabitable by the end of the century.

As Al Jaber said at the recent opening of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, “Before anyone in this region saw a future in renewables, the UAE saw them as the future.”

The UAE has worked steadily to evolve from being a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based one, creating a legislative, fiscal, and lifestyle environment designed to attract global intellectual and technical expertise and investment, while developing its own home-grown smart industries and talent, in fields from aerospace and transport to medicine and sustainable energy.

Evidence of the success of this approach can be seen in the fact that in 2020, oil exports accounted for only 30 per cent of the country’s GDP of $359 billion.

An economic sabotage

We currently live in a fossil-fuelled world, and demand for oil is not going to evaporate overnight — indeed, it will almost certainly increase in the near term as the world returns to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity and economies in developing countries continue to grow.

To make a conscious decision not to supply that demand would be tantamount to economic sabotage on a global scale. Cutting off the flow of oil and gas tomorrow, as some activist groups would like, would end life on Earth as we know it.

But equally important is the reality that developing the technologies necessary to facilitate the transition to sustainable energy on a global scale requires vast investment and know-how — assets that organisations such as ADNOC have in spades.

It might be seen as ironic by some, but the reality is that it is oil profits, reinvested with all the intelligence and foresight demonstrated by ADNOC — led by people like Al Jaber — that will make possible the transition to the post-oil era.

Recently, the BBC asked: “Why has an oil boss been chosen to head climate summit?”

The simple answer: He’s the best one for the job.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.

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