Sultan al-Jaber, Oil and Renewable Energy Executive, Straddles Divide as Head of COP28 Climate Summit

Sultan al-Jaber, Oil and Renewable Energy Executive, Straddles Divide as Head of COP28 Climate Summit

On a craggy desert plateau in Uzbekistan, a renewable energy company from the United Arab Emirates is putting up more than 100 wind turbines.

And on the other side of this vast, landlocked Central Asian nation, the same company’s owners, Emirati fossil-fuel investors, are pouring billions of dollars into a gas plant expansion.

The Emirates, made wealthy by decades of oil exports, wants to be seen as a climate-friendly renewable energy superpower, even as it helps lock developing nations around the world into decades more fossil fuel use.

Straddling that split is one man: Sultan al-Jaber.

He founded the renewable energy company, Masdar, which has invested billions of dollars in zero-emissions energy technologies like wind and solar power across 40 countries. Simultaneously, he directs Adnoc, the national oil company, a behemoth that makes Masdar look minuscule. Adnoc pumps millions of barrels of oil per day and aims to spend $150 billion over the next five years, mostly to ramp up its output.

And this year, the United Nations has in effect vested Mr. al-Jaber with one of humanity’s most pressing tasks: steering its annual global climate negotiations, which are set to begin in November in Dubai.

Those increasingly urgent talks are the world’s main forum to address how to limit global warming. The scientific consensus, that preventing runaway climate change must be done largely by bring a rapid end to the fossil fuel era, has made the decision to have Mr. al-Jaber preside over the summit intensely controversial.

In an interview, Mr. al-Jaber, 49, said he was the perfect fit for the job.

Over six months of preparation for the summit, known as COP28, Mr. al-Jaber said, he has consulted everyone from academicians to financiers to Indigenous leaders to fellow oil executives to understand why past summits have yielded such little progress.

His conclusion was that the fossil fuel industry had little to do with it.

“That was not one of the findings,” he said. Instead, he said, progress was stymied because climate advocates and fossil fuel interests vilified each other. “Why are we fighting industries? Fighting emissions should focus on reducing emissions across the board, whether it’s oil and gas, whether it’s industry, regardless of what it is.”

Advocates for bold climate action have been outraged by his approach, which rests on bringing fossil fuel companies to the table, and which he claims will break that cycle of recrimination. A group of 133 U.S. Senators and European Union lawmakers signed a letter this year calling for him to be replaced.

Multinational fossil fuel companies have a well-documented track record of countering climate science through misinformation and lobbying campaigns, even as now-public internal documents have revealed they were well aware of the effects of their products on the atmosphere.

At last year’s COP summit, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and other fossil fuel producing nations blocked language in a final resolution that would have set a timeline for phasing out oil and gas, scuttling an outcome favored by most of the world’s countries. Mr. al-Jaber will be responsible for building a new consensus this year.

Negotiations at recent United Nations climate summits have faltered because countries struggle to agree on how quickly the world can move away from burning fossil fuels, which produce emissions that are warming the planet and making it increasingly dangerous for human habitation. Rich countries have produced the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the industrial age.

Mr. al-Jaber points to the Emirates as a model for speeding up the change. The Emirates’ leaders, he says, “saw the future that the world was heading toward and wanted to get ahead of it.”

In other words, they predicted the energy transition (fossil fuels are finite, after all) and wanted to make sure they remained an energy powerhouse.

Masdar, which the Emirates’ crown prince helped Mr. al-Jaber found in 2006, is now partly owned by Adnoc, as well as by TAQA, the Emirates’ national gas company, and Mubadala, its biggest state-run investment firm. Mr. al-Jaber said that Masdar would receive investments of around $35 billion over the next five years, less than a quarter of Adnoc’s $150 billion spending target.

In Uzbekistan, TAQA and Mubadala are building two new gas facilities. Other countries in the region are also getting Emirati help to expand fossil fuel energy infrastructure: In Azerbaijan, a recent Adnoc investment in an offshore oil field overshadowed Masdar’s expansion in renewable energy there.

“There is a large consensus that investing billions into new oil and gas projects flies in the face of clear warnings we’ve been getting from the scientific community for many years,” said Scott Zimmerman, who manages a database of oil and gas projects at Global Energy Monitor, a research organization.

The Emirates is not the only country where companies are announcing new fossil fuel projects. But while investments worldwide in solar energy, for instance, have already surpassed those in oil, the Emirates is still a major exporter of fossil fuel projects.

Adnoc’s projected growth will lead to more than 2.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions through their production and burning, according to a 2022 report from Oil Change International. That is more than a year of combined emissions from Germany and Japan, and is second only to Qatar’s national energy company, which is building the world’s largest gas facility.

Mr. al-Jaber said that he foresees Adnoc’s fossil fuel production expanding “as long as the market demands it,” but that the effects on the globe can be blunted with new technologies that one day may allow them to minimize emissions stemming from the production of oil and gas. That argument for abatement echoes that of world’s largest fossil fuel producers, including Adnoc, which are investing huge sums of money into carbon capture.

Right now, however, the technology is nascent and the scientists developing it say that we are many years away from deploying it at scale.

“They are needed, those tech solutions, but they can’t be developed fast enough,” said Mia Moisio, a Middle East analyst at Climate Action Tracker, which grades nations’ climate pledges. “At least, certainly not fast enough for Adnoc’s expansion over the next five years.”

The Emirates’ received a rating of “insufficient” for its policies and actions from that group last month. Ms. Moisio noted that the Emirates’ 2050 energy strategy still envisions the country getting half of its energy from gas, despite having abundant solar potential.

The energy transition presents a quandary for developing countries, like Uzbekistan, which want a clean way to grow their economies. Uzbekistan’s population is growing rapidly, and electricity demand grew by 18 percent last year.

The country relies almost entirely on foreign investment to expand its energy production, whether it is in wind turbines or gas refineries.

“Right now we are almost all gas. But we need everything we can get,” Jurabek Mirzamakhmudov, the country’s energy minister, said in an interview. “We want whatever can be done quickest and cheapest.”

Masdar won a bid to supply the national grid with renewable electricity by promising the government a price of 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. And Uzbekistan’s government didn’t have to help pay for the new installations.

At the site of a new wind farm close to the world’s largest open-pit gold mine, workers were in the process of installing a fourth turbine recently, and there were at least 107 more to go. The wind that made the place such a good spot for power production whipped up enormous clouds of dust, some of which blew into the workers’ lunches.

Mr. Mirzamakhmudov said that Masdar’s investments could help Uzbekistan get to about 15 gigawatts of energy from wind and solar by the end of the decade. That would mean a quarter of the country’s electricity could come from renewables, including existing hydropower sources. The rest would come from fossil fuels.

This May, the Energy Ministry signed an agreement with TAQA and Mubadala to build the new gas plants at the site of an existing one near Uzbekistan’s border with gas-rich Turkmenistan. The new plants will be twice as efficient as the currently operating one, but the plant’s director, Olim Yusupov, said there was still a greater need for gas.

“We have gone from being a exporter to an importer of gas, the demand is so high,” Mr. Mirzamakhmudov said. “We must produce more.”

That is the central dilemma Mr. al-Jaber will face at COP28 this fall, where he is trying not only to elicit pledges to drastically reduce emissions, but to guide the energy transition in a way that will ensure economic security for nations.

The stakes are high for a man, and his country, playing contradictory roles in a realignment that will transform the global economy.

“We don’t want to disrupt the world,” Mr. al-Jaber said. “And yes, neither do we want business as usual.”

Vivian Nereim contributed reporting.

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