Author : Navdeep Suri

Originally Published 2023-01-16 16:03:12 Published on Jan 16, 2023
The criticism of Sultan al Jaber's appointment as COP28 president might be well-meaning but the rush to judgement reflects an incomplete understanding of both the host country and the individual.
UAE Might Just Give COP28 the Breakthrough It Needs
The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties or COP28 will be hosted by UAE towards the end of 2023. The announcement from Abu Dhabi that Dr. Sultan al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) has been designated president of COP28 has drawn a barrage of criticism from well-intentioned climate change activists. Reports have made headlines in international media and even in The Wire. Some of it is predictable and it expresses concern on two key aspects – that there is a conflict of interest because he is the head of a national oil company and that as a CEO, he will be pushing a corporate, fossil fuels driven agenda. The criticism might be well-meaning but the rush to judgement reflects an incomplete understanding of both the host country and the individual who has been chosen to head COP28. Despite being the world’s eighth largest producer of oil, UAE has shown an early and unusually ambitious commitment to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. The direction was laid down by the country’s President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed when he challenged organisations like ADNOC to get prepared for an era where the country would have sold its last barrel of oil. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation was set up and in 2009, it awarded a US $ 25 billion contract to South Korea for building a massive nuclear power plant with four units of 1345 megawatts each. Three of the four units are already operational, making UAE the only country in the entire Middle East and North Africa region to be producing clean nuclear energy. The same thought process was reflected in setting up Masdar or the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, in 2006 with the ambition of becoming a global leader in renewable energy and sustainable urban development. Masdar City, built just outside Abu Dhabi, had the stated intent of becoming the first net zero urban settlement a decade before the term ‘net zero’ had entered our lexicon. Sultan al Jaber was CEO of Masdar from 2006 to 2016 and continues to be its Chairman. Under his stewardship, Masdar has become one of the largest global players in the renewable energy space. It has already invested in 20 gigawatt in solar and wind energy projects across 40 countries and has set itself the target of 100 GW by 2030. It is also investing in cutting edge technology to build solar-powered water desalination and waste to energy plants. Since 2008, Masdar has also hosted the annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), an event that attracts heads of state and government, policy makers, global business leaders and a host of technology pioneers and NGOs from 150 countries. It is one of the largest platforms of its kind for sharing technology and best practices, showcasing innovation and developing strategies for a net zero future. ADSW also creates outreach programs like the Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewable Energy (WiSER) platform with the objective of inspiring women to take up the challenge of sustainable development. Women-led NGOs from both developed and developing countries participate actively in these deliberations. And there is a parallel programme to encourage youth engagement.

More recently, ADNOC along with sovereign fund Mubadala and power generation company Taqa have taken a stake in Masdar and outlined their aim to become one of the top five players globally in the green hydrogen spectrum as a fuel for the future. The newly established green hydrogen unit of Masdar plans to produce one million tonnes of green hydrogen and derivatives by 2030, catering both to domestic demand and the export market.

As CEO of Masdar, al Jaber also played a vital role in executing the vision of the country’s leadership to encourage the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to set up its headquarters in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi. IRENA now has 167 countries plus the EU as its members and plays a lead role in guiding and supporting green energy transitions. It also provides member states with updated analyses on areas like innovation, technology, policy, finance and investment. Incidentally, India has assumed the Presidency of the 13th Assembly of IRENA when it met in Abu Dhabi on January 14, 2023. These facts speak for themselves.

UAE hardly fits the stereotype of an oil-rich nation that is happy to live off the bounty provided by its fossil fuels. Over the last 15 years, it has embarked on a restless drive to become a catalyst in the search for technologies that enable more sustainable development pathways. The Barakah nuclear plant, the pioneering role of Masdar and the support to organisations like IRENA and platforms like ADSW are just a few of the examples.

And Sultan al Jaber isn’t just the CEO of ADNOC. He is also UAE’s Minister for Industry and Advanced Technology and was the country’s Special Envoy for Climate Change from 2010 to 2016 and again from 2020 onwards.

Over eight years in that role and representing UAE at previous CoPs has given him a thorough insight into the complex challenges of sustainable development. I have seen him at close quarters during my term as India’s ambassador to UAE and observed both his can-do, problem solving approach and his incredible stamina for putting in the long hours that his latest role will require. He clearly has the support and confidence of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.

I have also seen the access that he enjoys with government and business leaders and others by virtue of the multiples hats that he continues to wear. In his address at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi on January 14 soon after being designated President of COP28, al Jaber was candid in acknowledging the need to go much further and faster, calling for a trebling of renewable energy output from 8 to 23 terawatt hours and promising to work on the challenges of mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage suffered by the most vulnerable countries. Let us give him the chance to do that. There is a broad consensus that while the last few COPs have made incremental progress, they have failed to produce the kind of breakthrough needed to address the challenges. The urgency of the climate crisis needs a different approach and UAE just might be the country that helps bridge the gap between the global North and South to produce a breakthrough.
This commentary originally appeared in The Wire.
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