UAE oil chief and COP28 president can steer ‘tough cookies’ of oil and gas: EU climate policy head

UAE oil chief Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber was last week named as president of this year’s COP28 climate talks. PHOTO: REUTERS

ABU DHABI - The European Union’s climate policy chief Frans Timmermans has defended the controversial appointment of the United Arab Emirates’ oil chief as leader of the year-end COP28 climate conference, saying he was confident that Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber could steer the “tough cookies” of the global oil and gas sector towards the green energy transition. 

Dr Al Jaber, 49, is chief executive of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) – the world’s 12th largest oil producer – and was last week announced president-designate of the Dubai-hosted United Nations COP28 climate conference later this year.

Since his appointment on Jan 12, he has faced a backlash from climate activists, who say the UAE faces a conflict of interest in fielding someone from the fossil fuel industry.

The emissions from burning fossil fuels are largely responsible for the climate crisis, scientists say.

The United Nations has said the only way to limit the risks from climate change is to significantly ramp up investments in renewable energy and shift away from coal, oil and gas.

Climate activists fear that the conference, from Nov 30 to Dec 12, may be hijacked by the fossil fuel industry, which could play down efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it pushes for increased oil and gas production.

On Sunday, climate activists in Davos also protested against the role of big oil companies at the ongoing World Economic Forum, saying companies such as BP, Chevron and Saudi Aramco would push for their interests.

Speaking on Monday at the summit of the annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Mr Timmermans pointed to Dr Al Jaber’s “impressive track record” in embarking on sustainability policies long before anybody else in the oil and gas sector did.

The executive vice-president for the European Commission added: “We have some tough cookies in that sector that we need to address, but I want them on board, I don’t want them vilified.

“And I want him, and I will help him where we can, to convince other executives in oil and gas to finally start investing in the transition towards renewable energy.”

Dr Al Jaber was the founding chief executive of renewable energy company Masdar, which has invested in renewable energy projects in more than 40 countries. Recently, Masdar also started a green hydrogen branch, and embarked on a few feasibility partnerships with other countries on the technology.

In one such collaboration, the company on Jan 13 inked an agreement with four Dutch companies to explore transportation methods for exporting green hydrogen to Amsterdam. Masdar is also the host of the sustainability week.

Despite the green push, however, Adnoc is also aiming to raise crude oil production capacity to five million barrels a day by 2027, up from about four million barrels now, Bloomberg reported in November 2022. This will be part of the oil giant’s US$150 billion (S$198 billion) investment plan, which is higher than its previous five-year spending target.

The EU’s position appears to have softened from its stance at COP27 in Egypt last November, when the bloc pushed hard for a call to phase out all fossil fuels, as a warning to the world against investing in them.

But the oil and gas sector has assets that will be essential in a post-carbon world, such as scientific research, Mr Timmermans said on Monday.

Ms Gauri Singh, the deputy director-general of the Abu Dhabi-headquartered International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), noted that the UAE is used to being questioned about its conflicts of interest, and said it was a bold decision to host a UN climate change conference in the Gulf state.

When Irena – an intergovernmental organisation that supports countries in their transition to renewables – set up its headquarters in the Emirate more than a decade ago, it too was seen as a “highly unusual” move, she recalled.

But it showed that despite being a very large producer of oil and gas, the country is actively looking to move along the energy transition pathway and help neighbouring countries, Ms Singh noted. 

Dr Victor Nian, co-founder and chief executive of the think-tank Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources, said it would be impractical to dismiss hydrocarbon players completely in a sustainable energy transition.

“The key is to identify the appropriate role of fossil fuels in shaping the transition. Sustainability is about balancing people, profit and planet, thus, cutting off fossil fuels in a haste will likely cause more problems than solve them,” he said.

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