Climate Change, Energy and a Question of Leadership

Jonathan Gornall

Image courtesy of Karim Sahib / AFP

The consensus among climatechange activists and many commentators is that 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 is akin to appointing a fox as head of security on a chicken farm.

There is, however, an alternative perspective on the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber as president-designate of what is being seen as the most crucial climatechange 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 unrivaled overview and a unique understanding of both sides of the energy equation.

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. Portraying Al Jaber as an out-and-out oilman whose appointment to head up COP28 is “outrageously regressive” and “deeply problematic,” is crassly naive.

To suggest, as Climate Action International CEO Tasneem Essop did last week, that it’s “imperative for the world to be reassured that he will step down from his role as the CEO of [ADNOC],” is to underestimate the intelligence of the world.

Not everyone is skeptical about Al Jaber’s appointment. 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.

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 wellbeing 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 homegrown 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, despite the outdated perception of the UAE as being first and foremost a petrostate, in 2020, oil exports accounted for only 30 percent of the country’s GDP of $359 billion.

Yes, the UAE is still awash in fossil fuels – it holds 10 percent of the total world oil supply and has the fifth largest natural gas reserves. Critics point to plans by ADNOC to increase oil production over the next few years as if it’s the smoking gun that proves conclusively that Al Jaber really is a fox in the chicken coop.

But, of course, it does no such thing.

We currently live in a fossil-fueled 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 organizations 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.

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

The simple answer: He’s the best fox 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.