Realistic hope should be the legacy of Cop28

1st June 2023

Realistic hope should be the legacy of COP28

The appointment of the UAE’s Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber as Cop president has drawn criticism from some quarters, but progress on the energy transition will require cooperation, not conflict

This article was originally published in Petroleum Economist

It is no longer surprising to see a sudden surge of outrage aimed at specific energy leaders, often amplified by global and social media. Stories of heroes and villains remain popular. . The World Energy Council community has been at the forefront of making energy transitions happen for a century, so has some experience to bring to the table.  

The latest outrage has been aimed at the credibility of the UAE’s appointed COP President, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, following concerns raised by some western legislators. 

It’s easy to join the bandwagon of criticism against a highly visible target, but progress rests on inclusion and sustaining cooperation, not conflict and conflagration.  

The unwelcome news that the world will overshoot the 1.5oC mark by 2030 does not mean a complete and immediate end to the use of fossil fuels is the only nor the best option. This oversimplification reflects a gross misunderstanding of the situation.  

Instead, all levers must be engaged if we are to ensure this will be a temporary setback, and not a permanent crisis of our own making. Our energy system is not fit for purpose, and requires radical, long-lasting structural change. But the scale and pace of change required can’t occur without the participation and cooperation of existing industries. Oil and gas also need to come to the table in a different way. Dr Sultan has challenged industry leaders to be more progressive, inclusive and humble. It’s rare to see such rallying cries in any industry, and especially in oil and gas which isn’t famed for its humility.   

Climate resilient energy systems are needed and need to be designed to secure wider access to sustainable and affordable energy for billions of better lives and a healthy planet.  

A wicked problem, not a simple story of good vs bad 

The scale and scope of the global energy transition puzzle is mindboggling. Here are a few hard truths about the systemic leadership challenge that are often overlooked: 

The world will need a much bigger and less wasteful energy system to meet the growing demand for modern energy, or billions more people will be left behind or die prematurely. 

Modern energy societies are reliant on the power punch (energy density) provided by fossil-fuel and nuclear generation.  

Not all existing or new energy needs can be met with electrification, and all energy systems will be impacted by climate change. 

Ideological taxonomies about all good (“green”) vs all bad energy sources cannot be universally applied. Multiple transition pathways are emerging in all regions and there are many solutions available for decarbonising energy production and use, and all of them will be needed. 

More decentralised, decarbonised and digitalised energy systems raise new challenges in managing the energy trilemma of security, affordability and sustainability throughout the process of transition – a process which can’t be completed all at once.  

There is no such thing as a cheap, easy and quick energy transition. The true costs to society involve consideration of prices, system costs and value – both the ability and willingness to pay – and redirecting investment into building new, maintaining, repurposing and/or decommissioning infrastructure.  

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all' approach. Top-down roadmaps have to be translated into reality from the bottom up, by diverse communities of roadbuilders. 

It’s easy to see why, for many, fear of the future is visceral when there’s a pervasive sense of catastrophic climate change-fuelled existential crisis. Most of us have already lived through multiple once-in-a-lifetime crises. The societal shock is evident.  

Citizens are tired of turmoil. We crave stability. Incremental or disorderly progress and climate change threaten that, so it’s easy to see why activists demand transformational change.  

We need to expand understanding of the scope of energy transition, so that people can find their place in the puzzle and share in the hope offered by realistic paths forward.  

More humility and hard work, less hubristic techno-fix 

Energy incumbents and climate change activists must come to the table in different ways. There is no instruction book for (re)designing energy systems to restore harmony between people and planet. All parts of societies need to be better informed and equipped to make choices.  

We can’t only plan for net zero, we must also better prepare societies for the realities of overshooting 1.5oC. Earlier this year the IPCC’s Synthesis Report confirmed what many of us already knew; the world needs fairer access to more climate resilient energy for sustainable development.  

The narrow focus on climate mitigation policies has never been enough. Throwing money at the issue and focusing blindly on the “big technology” that will save us all is a recipe for failure.  

Energy transition is socially messy. The reality of climate adaptation is that it must include the whole of society. It is best cultivated by engaging with and learning from the people and diverse communities involved in making clean, just and inclusive energy transition happen, everywhere. The speed of social learning is key to closing the gap between technology acceleration and policy implementation.  

The best way to ensure that passing the 1.5C global warming threshold is a temporary blip and not our permanent reality is to ensure diverse voices come to the table with shared goals: to redesign energy for people and planet, with more people and communities in the process, and by being open to using every tool at our disposal.  

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