Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sultan al-Jaber, the controversial chairman of the COP28 climate conference, is a United Arab Emirates businessman extraordinaire. His role and that of COP28 appear all the more important in the wake of the terrifying wildfires that swept the tropical island (!) of Maui this week and destroyed the ancient capital of Hawaii, which not even Captain Cook had been able to accomplish. Such wildfires have more than one cause, but our preeminent climate scientist, Michael E. Mann of the University of Pennsylvania, estimates that the cause was 5/6 human-produced climate change and 1/6 other factors.
Al-Jaber wears several hats, including chairman of the board of Masdar, the UAE’s green energy corporation, and CEO of ADNOC, a major oil and gas concern that is seeking a massive global expansion.
Masdar built a model city near Abu Dhabi that I went to visit once. It was envisaged as demonstration project for a low-carbon urban environment. They had these cute little electric vehicles and the buildings had solar panels. If I’m not mistaken, Mr. al-Jaber was on the premises at the time and I met him and got his business card. Seemed like a nice guy, and very idealistic.
Masdar is an important player in the green energy field and is doing great things that are an extension of al-Jaber’s vision. It is active in 40 countries. Masdar has 20 gigawatts’ worth of green energy facilities in its portfolio, and al-Jaber has set a goal of 100 gigawatts by 2030. That would be an incredible achievement for a single company. Germany, a green energy pioneer, only has 58 gigawatts of wind power to date, and 70 gigawatts of solar, so Masdar as a single company wants to achieve nearly as much green power generation as Germany has accumulated historically until this moment.
Andrew Lee at Recharge reports that Masdar is investing $1.5 billion with the Spanish firm Iberdrola in the Baltic Eagle offshore wind installation off Germany, which will generate 476 MW. It is slightly over a $3 bn project.
Some of Masdar’s investments, as in offshore floating windmills for Scotland, could be game-changers. California’s offshore waters are too deep for pylons, so its offshore wind will have to be on floating platforms of the sort Masdar is pioneering with its partners.
The company also set up the world’s largest floating solar facility in Indonesia, and is now partnering with Malaysia for 2 gigawatts of green energy projects.
It is his role as chairman of the board at Masdar that catapulted al-Jaber into the presidency of COP28.
Here’s the problem, though. Masdar itself is owned by a consortium of three corporations, one of them being the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), of which Mr. al-Jaber has been group CEO since 2016. It is an irony that the venture capital for Masdar came in part from a gas and oil company.
But it is also troubling, because most movers and shakers in the Gulf oil states don’t have an appreciation for how urgent the climate crisis is and how important it is to Keep it in the Ground. They aren’t blind. They know an energy transition is coming. But their horizon for it is fifty or sixty years, not ten or twenty. It may not seem like a big difference. For the health of the earth, it is an enormous difference. We have a “carbon budget.” All the carbon pollution we have so far put into the atmosphere will go into the oceans. If we stop producing CO2, the earth will immediately cease heating up further, and then, gradually, over a couple of centuries, will go back to what was normal before about 1850. But the ocean will run out of absorptive capacity in 2050, and if we go on spewing billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere after that, we’ll make the earth a hellhole for many centuries, maybe millennia, to come.
To be fair, even the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t plan to stop building new coal plants until 2030, and doesn’t plan to get to carbon zero until 2060, even though it is making bigger strides toward a green energy economy, as measured by gigawatts of green energy, than any other country in the world. Coal is to the Chinese economy what petroleum is to the UAE economy, and neither can easily let go (the CPP is afraid of the coal workers for one thing). So it isn’t only the Gulf oil states who have this tunnel blindness.
But here’s the kicker: Ivan Levingston, David Sheppard and Andrew England at the Financial Times write that ADNOC “has earmarked $150bn in capital expenditure over the next five years towards expanding its oil and gas production, with $15bn set aside for low-carbon solutions over a longer period.”
And you want to shout, no, no, no! UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned in June that based on UN studies, the world can only avoid the catastrophes that will come with exceeding the pre-Industrial Revolution average temperature by 1.5 degrees C. by cutting, not just present emissions, but fossil fuel production.
He called on financial institutions to “commit to end financing and investment in exploration for new oil and gas fields, and expansion of oil and gas reserves – investing instead in the just transition in the developing world.” He called on the fossil fuel industry to drive the transition to green energy.
So Mr.al-Jaber is doing half of what Secretary-General Guterres is asking. ADNOC is in fact using Masdar to effect a green energy transition, with plans to expand its gigawattage by an enormous 80 gigs.
But his ADNOC is not doing the other half. It isn’t ceasing investment in and exploration for new oil and gas. $150 billion over 5 years for expansion of fossil fuel production is a crime against humanity. Ask Maui.
And this is why Mr. al-Jaber is such a controversial pick to chair COP28. His Masdar activities are what make John Kerry, President Biden’s special emissary on climate change, defend Mr. al-Jaber, and those activities are indeed praiseworthy.
But the ADNOC expansion plans are not consistent with leadership on the climate crisis. Moreover, they are likely bad business strategy. The electrification of transportation is coming much more quickly than most people realize (read Tony Seba), and wasting money to produce more oil for ten years from now when demand will likely be cratering is a good way to go bankrupt.