Cop28 must deliver on promises

25 October 2023

Jennifer Aguinaldo
Energy & technology editor


There is a good chance that the average delegate attending the 2023 Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Cop28) will skip visiting or driving past the key clean energy installations in the UAE.

These include the wind turbines on Sir Baniyas Island, 9.5 kilometres (km) off Jebel Dhana in Abu Dhabi; the $29bn Barakah nuclear power plant in Al-Gharbia, close to the border with Saudi Arabia; the solar farms in Sweihan and Al-Dhafra in Abu Dhabi; and Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Solar Park, 50km from Expo City, the venue for Cop28.

For many delegates, a trip to these sites is unnecessary. They are aware of the UAE’s green credentials, with the country having ploughed billions of dollars into investments aimed at decarbonising its economy, and more still to come.

For others, however, a single statistic undermines the positive environmental steps that the world’s sixth-largest crude exporter has taken. State-backed energy firm Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) plans to increase its oil production capacity from 4 million barrels a day (b/d) to 5 million b/d by 2027.

Double-edged strategy

Critics, who include the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, have warned of the dangers of a double-edged energy transition strategy. Cop28 president-designate Sultan al-Jaber, managing director and CEO of Adnoc, prefers to describe such an approach as pragmatic.

An agreement requiring developed countries to provide loss and damage funding to countries most affected by climate change was a key takeaway from last year’s UN climate change conference in Egypt (Cop27). However, there was a lack of progress on the phasing down or out of fossil fuels.

The onus is now on the UAE, whose energy transition approach embraces energy sources from fossil fuels to green hydrogen, to deliver a more productive conference.

The hope is that the UAE’s status as an oil- exporting country, and the selection of an oil industry stalwart to lead this year’s negotiations, will not distract from the important tasks that the 12-day event aims to tackle.

Cop28 will see the first global stocktake of the progress countries have made towards their emissions reduction commitments or nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

Al-Jaber has also promised to supercharge climate finance and put more pressure on developed countries to fulfil the commitment they made at Cop15 in Copenhagen to mobilise $100bn annually by 2020. This target has been missed repeatedly.

A UAE finance initiative that will provide $4.5bn to help unlock Africa’s clean energy potential was announced in early September and is an example of such commitment.

Al-Jaber’s insistence on putting oil and gas companies at the heart of the climate dialogue is proving both decisive and divisive, however, depending on which side of the climate debate one supports.

“This is your opportunity to show the world that, in fact, you are central to the solution,” he told the oil and gas-dominated Adipec conference held in Abu Dhabi on 2-5 October.

How can green ammonia compete with grey ammonia if the gas for the grey ammonia is provided at a fraction of world market prices?
Cornelius Matthes, Dii Desert Energy

Cyril Widdershoven, global energy market analyst at Netherlands-based consultancy Verocy, supports Al-Jaber’s views. 

“The main Cop28 outcome will be linked to an even and rational transition from hydrocarbons to renewables, taking into account the overall need to cut emissions and [carbon] footprint,” he says. 

The summit will lead to a realisation that hydrocarbons will be a major part of the overall energy scene for decades to come, as the world is not yet ready to be fully electrified, Widdershoven adds.

The oil and gas industry’s increased presence at, and participation in, Cop28 is expected to make an impact.

“There will be huge pressure on the oil and gas industry to participate in the decarbonisation of energy systems, first by eliminating methane flaring and then eliminating emissions from their own operations by 2030,” says Paddy Padmanathan, co-founder and vice-chairman of clean energy firm Zhero and former CEO of Saudi utility developer Acwa Power.

“Abu Dhabi can influence the national oil companies to sign up to this, and Adnoc and Saudi Aramco should be able to influence the international oil companies to sign up.”

Top 10 UAE clean energy projects

Walking the talk

The UAE has shown leadership by being the first country in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region to initiate the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies in 2015, Cornelius Matthes, CEO of Dubai-based Dii Desert Energy, tells MEED. 

“It was also the first Mena country to introduce a net-zero 2050 target in 2021, and has an unparalleled track record in building some of the largest solar plants in the world at record-low prices.”

Since other countries in the region have already followed the UAE’s lead, the expectation is for Cop28 to provide impetus for similar initiatives to accelerate.

With Abu Dhabi leading, Zhero’s Padmanathan expects it will also be possible to secure financial commitments
to the Loss & Damage Fund that was established at Cop27.

A declaration from the world’s 46 least-developed countries cited a “strong outcome operationalising the new Loss & Damage Fund” among their key expectations and priorities for Cop28.

Home to more than 14 per cent of the world’s population, these countries contribute about 1 per cent of emissions from fossil fuels and industrial processes and most are on the front line of the climate crisis. The majority need funds to deal with the impact of climate change in sectors such as agriculture, while others require funds to develop clean energy sources. 

Tripling initiative

The goal of tripling global renewable energy capacity is expected be included in the agenda for Cop28.

This is in line with the International Energy Agency’s recommendation that the world needs to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030 if the 1.5 degrees Celsius cap on global warming that was agreed in Paris in 2015 is to still be within reach.

However, this goal needs a clear mechanism to be effective, according to an expert in the renewable energy field.

“There will be a big song and dance around the commitment to tripling solar and wind deployment by 2030, but given there will be no mechanism for holding anyone responsible for it, and for sure there will be no consequence … I cannot see how meaningful such pledges can be,” the expert tells MEED.

Hard issues 

The wider Mena region, which will share the spotlight and scrutiny associated with Cop28, will have to demonstrate a willingness to talk about the reduction of all harmful emissions, not only carbon, says Matthes.

The easiest option is to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, as they encourage energy waste and profit wealthy populations disproportionately.

“How can green ammonia compete with grey ammonia if the gas for the grey ammonia is provided at a fraction of world market prices?” Matthes asks.

Introducing a cost for all harmful emissions is another opportunity that can automatically improve bankability for energy transformation projects. To their credit, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have recently introduced voluntary carbon markets, which are seen as steps in the right direction.

Initiatives to boost energy efficiency across the Mena region should also be part of the conversation. These range from efforts to use air conditioning, cooling and water more discriminatingly; electrify transportation; deploy battery energy storage systems; and increase the decarbonisation of the production, shipping, refining and upstream use of oil and gas.

“The region’s waste of energy should be reduced and eliminated before even thinking about how to produce energy,” says Matthes.

Possible scenarios

Despite promises of inclusivity and productiveness, there is a strong probability that most Cop28 negotiators will get only a fraction of what they hope to take away from the summit.

“In a complex system like the Cop negotiations, we need to be realistic about what can be achieved,” says Matthes. “As we have seen in the past ... the same countries always manage to dilute compromises and block long-overdue and necessary developments.”

A likely post-Cop28 scenario could include an agreement requiring the oil and gas industry to do and spend more to decarbonise their products and operations, share in the financial burden of climate change mitigation, and if possible, curb production. This could avoid the use of wording that proved contentious at Glasgow’s Cop26 when a deal that called for the “phase out” of coal-fired power had to be amended to “phase down” following pressure from some countries. 

Climate change advocates will have to live with the fact that fossil fuels, and their entire supply chain, are not likely to be penalised further or disappear. Major change is unlikely until the world is ready to be fully electrified, or until the fear that halting oil production could cause energy insecurity and economic chaos can be overcome.

The Global North countries will have to weigh the best options to reach their net-zero carbon emission targets by 2050 without risking their economic growth. However, countries such as the UK are in the process of pushing back some of their energy transition targets.

Meanwhile, most Global South countries will continue to bear the brunt of the worsening climate crisis, albeit with some support from top carbon-emitting and wealthy nations.

Rightly or wrongly, this could highlight the merit of Al-Jaber’s preferred pragmatic and inclusive approach to Cop28 in terms of technologies, fuels and the representation of sectors.

“A convergence of interests and the dramatic changes to the status of the global energy transition over the past few years … could help countries find new momentum and solutions that might not have seemed feasible in the past,” says Matthes.

Image: Cop28 president-designate Sultan al-Jaber engages with Pope Francis on driving positive outcomes for climate action. Credit: Cop28
Jennifer Aguinaldo
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