He is the CEO of a major polluter, but Sultan Al Jaber is likely to be well received and perhaps even congratulated when he arrives at climate summit COP26 in Glasgow starting this weekend.
Mr. Al Jaber, who runs Abu Dhabi’s national oil company, which supplies about 3 percent of the world’s oil, has another job. He is a special climate envoy of the United Arab Emirates and the founder of a multi-billion dollar state-owned company that invests in renewable energy.
For more than a decade, it has sought to position the Gulf state as a leader in environmental issues, acting on behalf of the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
In the latest of these initiatives, the United Arab Emirates has committed itself to having a net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the first government in the region to make such a statement. It joins the growing list of countries making long-term commitments that are difficult to assess.
“He’s a pioneer of climate action,” said Karim Elgendy, a Middle East environmental associate at Chatham House, a research organization in London.
Working as an environmental advocate and CEO selling fossil fuels may seem contradictory. But apparently not in the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven countries, including Abu Dhabi, whose oil production finances the remaining six.
Make no mistake: Abu Dhabi’s leadership wants to maintain a market for huge oil reserves in the Emirates that are sufficient at current rates for more than 60 years of production.
The Emirates produces about three million barrels of oil a day, mostly through the National Oil Company of Abu Dhabi or ADNOC. These revenues provide much of the country’s economy, fund the government, and help support the centers of futuristic office towers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
But the royal families that run the Emirates seem to have decided that it is better to be part of a global warming solution in partnership with most of the rest of the world – or at least to appear to be. (The state has already offered to host COP28, in two years.)
“The net zero goal has a business case behind it,” said Karen Young, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a research organization in Washington. “It marks a state-owned hydrocarbon producer in the class of solution seekers, not obstructionists.”
Analysts say that achieving the zero target, even by 2050, will not be easy: The Emirates is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide per capita in the world, mainly from power plants. But according to the climate accounting applied to the COP, oil exported by Abu Dhabi is considered to be emissions from customers that burn it, such as China and Japan, and not emissions from the producer country.
Nevertheless, the target is likely to encourage action and investment.
“You need an ambitious goal to move things in the right direction,” said Steven Griffith, senior vice president of research and development at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. “The country is probably in the best position of all the Gulf states to actually do that.”
Emirates plans to spend 600 billion dirhams, or $ 163 billion, over the next three decades to reduce emissions from power plants that now burn huge amounts of natural gas, in part to cool buildings in severe Gulf heat. A lot of money will go to solar power plants that can be placed across the sands of the Emirates. Another source of clean energy will be a group of four nuclear reactors recently built by South Korean contractors in Abu Dhabi, which are gradually appearing online.
Analysts say spending so much money will certainly have a big impact in a small country of 9.9 million people already well ahead of neighboring oil exporters such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in diversifying their economies away from oil. The Emirates, for example, is a regional hub for finance, logistics and tourism.
And more resources are likely to be available to support the green agenda, such as renovating buildings so they don’t use as much energy for air conditioners, or converting transportation to electricity or hydrogen. The Emirates is one of those places with wealth and a willingness to implement “loss-making projects and are at their peak,” said Raad Alkadiri, CEO of Energy and Climate at Eurasia Group, a political risk firm.
John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy and regular visitor to Mr. Al Jaber in the Emirates, he said in a Twitter message that his commitment was “an example to other energy-producing countries.”
The promise may have already had an impact. At a conference in Riyadh last Saturday, officials from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and a frequent competitor of the United Arab Emirates, said they would commit to achieving nothing by 2060.
Of course, there is an element of image burning here. The revelations allowed the Emirates and Saudis to look virtuous in the face of world leaders gathering at COP26. Mr. Kerry, who attended the Saudi conference, was also assured of victories in his efforts to round out the promises.
But these commitments also show that the big oil countries now believe the world has moved and that they need to work together to take action to combat global warming.
“They calculated that being at the table would allow you to shape this new world and a new climate economy,” Mr. Elgendy.
And this new climate economy must take into account the burning of fossil fuels, these oil states say.
Mr Al Jaber, along with Saudi officials, said at a conference in Riyadh that oil and gas would be needed to power the world economy in the coming years – as well as to generate a source of revenue to pay for investment in new energy sources.
The recent shocks to natural gas and oil prices, which have caused electricity bills to rise sharply and forced some producers to cut or close, were the result of a premature reduction in investment in these resources, Al Jaber said.
“The world has gone into a supply crunch,” he said. Oil and gas must remain “mainstream” during the so-called energy transition, he added.
These views run counter to the conclusions of some climate experts, who say that new investments in oil and gas are it must stop immediately if the world wants to stop climate change.
ADNOC is one of the few oil companies anywhere that invests heavily in increasing production. Last summer, the Emirates demanded that Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries raise its production quota, leading to a high-profile dispute – since it was resolved – with the Saudis.
Five years ago, Mr. Al Jaber was appointed CEO of ADNOC and attracted private investment by selling stakes in the company’s infrastructure to investors such as financial management companies BlackRock and KKR, and by oil and gas exploration deals with companies including Occidental Petroleum based in the USA and Eni in Italy. Such transactions have brought in about $ 26 billion over the past five years, says Colby Connelly, an analyst at research firm Energy Intelligence.
As a sign that the oil giant is ready to adapt to climate needs, ADNOC recently announced it would join British oil company BP to build facilities in the UK and Emirates to produce large amounts of hydrogen, a clean combustion fuel. which could be used in the future to drive truck fleets or make steel.
Hydrogen can even become a substitute for oil exports. ADNOC has already shipped hydrogen to Japan, which is one of the most important customers of Gulf oil in the form of ammonia.