By NJ Ayuk, Executive Director, African Energy Chamber
The backlash in recent days about the selection of Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), to serve as president of the next United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) has been quite… dramatic.
The decision to have him lead the conference has been described as “a fox watching the henhouse,” asking “arms dealers to lead peace talks,” and “putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty.”
Tasneem Essop, the executive director of Climate Action Network International, went further, saying,” He cannot preside over a process that is tasked to address the climate crisis with such a conflict of interest, heading an industry that is responsible for the crisis itself. If he does not step down as CEO, it will be tantamount to a full scale capture of the UN climate talks by a petrostate national oil company and its associated fossil fuel lobbyists.”
And Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, told ABC News that the selection of Al Jaber to oversee COP28 is a “devastating blow to the climate negotiations at a critical moment in history.”
I could go on, but instead, I’d like to describe why I think those views are wrong-headed and why the African Energy Chamber supports Al Jaber’s selection.
Frankly, I’ve seen rhetoric like this before, only it was about the “grave dangers posed by fossil fuels”, the “evils of the oil and gas industry”, and how “Africa’s vulnerable populations must be protected from ongoing oil and gas production” and their role in triggering climate-related disasters.
I realize that the protests we’re seeing in Al Jaber’s case are based on the belief that, like oil and water, the petroleum industry and meaningful climate change prevention simply don’t mix.
But that assumption is false. If we’re going to have a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we’ll need both. We’ll need fossil fuels to ensure energy security and drive industrialization in developing nations, even as the world works to pull together the necessary investments, infrastructure, and governance to make a world fueled by renewable energy work.
Al Jaber understands that. He’s witnessed the painful results of divesting from fossil fuels prematurely — just look at the energy crisis in Europe — and he’s calling for a more pragmatic approach to protecting the world from climate change. He’s calling for an approach that doesn’t worsen energy poverty and hinder economic growth. As he brilliantly wrote in August, “Our ultimate goal should be to hold back emissions, not progress.”
Yes, Al Jaber is an oil and gas industry leader, and ADNOC has no intention of stopping production in the short term. And they shouldn’t. It will be reckless. Norway and the UK are awarding new oil drilling licenses. But, then again, drilling is not the world-threatening activity that environmental organizations make it out to be. And Al Jaber is more than an oil company leader, he’s also the chairman of the rapidly growing global renewable energy company, Masdar. And he has spoken openly about the importance of significantly curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to all of that, Al Jaber is a good man and a friend to Africa. I am certain that he is an excellent choice to lead COP28.
Bringing Renewables to the World
The renewable energy company that Al Jaber leads, Masdar, is a model of the important role the petroleum industry can take in moving the world closer to widespread renewable energy usage. The company was formed with the goal of diversifying the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) economy and energy industry, and its shareholders include ADNOC, Mubadala Investment Company, and Abu Dhabi National Energy Company PJSC (TAQA).
Today, Masdar is active in over 40 countries and invested in projects valued at more than USD20 billion.
A few examples of the company’s impact, just in the last few weeks, include:
- The company has signed an agreement with Kyrgyzstan’s energy ministry to develop clean energy projects with the capacity to generate 1 gigawatt (GW). The first of these projects will be a 200-megawatt solar energy plant set to begin operations in 2026.
- Masdar signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with four Dutch companies to explore strategies for establishing a green hydrogen supply chain from Abu Dhabi to the Netherlands. This ties in with Masdar’s plans to begin focusing on green hydrogen to achieve 100 GW renewable energy capacity and green hydrogen production of 1 million tons per annum annually by 2030.
- Masdar signed an MOU and a joint development agreement with Zambian utility, Zesco, to develop 2GW of solar PV in Zambia. Phase One of the projects is 500MW of large-scale solar PV. Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema says the projects with Masdar will provide USD2 billion of capital to the country.
- Also on Jan. 18, Masdar signed an agreement with Ethiopia to jointly develop a 500MW solar project.
ADNOC is demonstrating a solid commitment to protecting the environment, too. Earlier this year, it announced plans to invest UDE15 billion in decarbonization projects by 2030, including clean power, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency and reduction of routine gas flaring.
Meanwhile, Al Jaber has made it clear where he stands on emissions and climate change: He recognizes the need to get a handle on global emissions.
“We are way off track,” Al Jaber said Jan. 14 during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week , hosted by Masdar. “The world is playing catch-up when it comes to the key Paris goal of holding temperatures down to 1.5C, and the hard reality is that to achieve this goal, global emissions must fall 43% by 2030.”
Pragmatism is Not Our Enemy
But the reason Al Jaber is perfectly suited to serve as COP28 president— and is causing an uproar among environmental organizations — is he doesn’t believe the need to reduce global emissions is cause for irrational decisions. He supports continuing oil and gas production for now, rather than a premature rush to renewables.
His stance is based on a reasoned understanding of the repercussions of giving up fossil fuels too quickly.
“Recent events have shown that unplugging the current energy system before we have built a sufficiently robust alternative puts both economic and climate progress at risk – and calls into question whether we can ensure a just transition that is equitable to all,” Al Jaber wrote in an August op-ed.
“What’s needed is a realistic new strategy that is practical, pro-growth, and pro-climate,” he continued. “The strategy needs to appreciate the complexity of energy and industrial systems, and that the scale of the transition required is colossal, requiring greater alignment and collaboration on everything from capital allocation to product design, public policy, and behavioral change. This means examining the demand side of the energy system first.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
But I would add that Africa’s energy industry, and its potential to minimize energy poverty and drive economic growth, have been hindered by non-government organizations (NGOs) exerting immense pressure against investing in our continent’s oil and gas projects.
The UAE made a sound choice when it selected Al Jaber to lead COP28, and I hope it won’t let the voices of environmental organizations, no matter how loud, bully it into changing course. Africa stands firmly with the UAE and we will go from African Energy Week in Cape Town to COP28 in Abu Dhabi.