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Al Jaber reveals why he’s right choice to lead Cop28

Conference host chooses to give first interview to critics

Dr Sultan Al Jaber understands the difficulty in getting the balance right between the riches of oil and the need for renewables Creative Commons/Craig Strydom
Adnoc CEO Sultan Al Jaber is leading the company's push into new energy, low carbon fuels, such as ammonia and hydrogen

Dr Sultan Al Jaber, the Emirati oil executive who will be presiding over the Cop28 climate change conference, has come out swinging in the media recently with two big interviews – in the Guardian newspaper and Bloomberg’s “green” section.

They tell us a lot about how the UAE is approaching what promises to be the most important climate summit, at least since the 2015 Paris Agreement.

You have to give Al Jaber some credit for his choice of media conduit. Neither The Guardian nor Bloomberg can be regarded as especially “friendly” to the hydrocarbon industry, nor, in the case of the former, to the UAE.

Going into the lion’s den for your first major global interview was an act of bravery.

Al Jaber’s messaging is becoming familiar: to those critics who say it was wrong to appoint an oil executive (he is also CEO of Adnoc, the UAE hydrocarbon giant) to preside over an environmental summit, he insisted that the time for polarisation on climate issues was over. The challenge is simply too serious and increasingly urgent to squabble over ideological purity on matters of saving the planet.

In particular, Al Jaber argues, the global campaign to mitigate climate change needs exactly the kind of skills that businesspeople like he can bring to the table: technocratic expertise, practical know-how and a transactional inclination towards problem solving.

“The scale of the problem requires everyone working in solidarity. We need partnerships, not polarisation, and we need to approach this with a clear-eyed rationale and executable plan of action,” Al Jaber told The Guardian, stressing the need for a “business mindset” at Cop28.

Fiona Harvey, the newspaper’s environment editor who conducted the interview, relayed his thoughts even-handedly, while also injecting the views of those critics – from environmental and civil society groups – who are dead against Al Jaber and all his kind, and always will be. It was a balanced read on, what the paper called, a “deeply controversial” appointment.

But if you want some granularity on a seriously complex issue, the Bloomberg interview is a must read.

The author Akshat Rathi goes in some depth into the background of Al Jaber himself – steeped in the oil and gas industry from an early age but undergoing something of a Pauline conversion into renewables and alternative energy sources – but it also gets to the nitty gritty of the problem: the world’s dependency on oil. 

This is encapsulated in the UAE itself. The country has made great strides towards reducing its economic reliance on oil and gas, and invested billions in renewables, for example in Masdar, Al Jaber’s big contribution to the environmental debate. But it still relies on hydrocarbon revenue as the main driver of its economy.

Bloomberg gets this more than The Guardian, and is particularly good on the central conundrum of the UAE’s Cop presidency: while the extreme wing of the environmental movement wants to “stop oil now”, the UAE wants to expand oil production even faster than many others, and certainly quicker than the western oil companies that have been bitten by the green bug.

Bloomberg reproduces a table of annual CO2 emissions, below, claiming to illustrate this dilemma: the UAE’s emissions rank only behind Russia and Iran, and ahead of Saudi Arabia, which produces about three times as much oil.

Bloomberg's emissions table

The interview wheels out Fatih Birol, the increasingly “green” head of the International Energy Agency, to underline the quandary the UAE faces in trying to increase oil production while advancing the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“Both of them cannot happen at the same time. I’m sorry, but they have to choose,” Birol said.

This is precisely the choice the world faces too in a magnified way: do we want to go for broke to achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree goal by severely cutting back on hydrocarbon output, knowing that this endangers economic growth and the standards of living that fossil fuels allow us to enjoy? We have to choose.

So, contrary to the arguments of the environmentalists, it would seem the UAE is a microcosm of the global energy predicament, and therefore the perfect place to hold Cop28, with Al Jaber – the UAE’s energy expert par excellence – the right man to preside over it.

Frank Kane is AGBI’s Editor-at-Large

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