Climate change: Time running out for world to bridge the energy transition

Afshin Molavi

A defining image of our contemporary era might be a middle-class family at an airport in Asia or Africa, their smartphones tucked into their bags, boarding a flight to Dubai or Singapore or London. Such an image will not capture headlines or go viral, but its commonplace nature reflects a dramatic transformation in our world over the last five decades.
Historians may eventually define this period as the “Development Age,” when vast swathes of humanity, once mired in crushing poverty and limited opportunity, gradually began to break free from this vicious cycle. Two centuries ago, most of the world was impoverished. As late as 1955, more than half the world still lived below the poverty line. The world looks much different now. Today, about 10 percent of humanity lives in extreme poverty (roughly 700 million people). In 2007, for the first time in history, there were more urban residents than rural residents. Since then, urbanization rates have risen steadily, widening the gap. And, in 2018, we hit another milestone, according to Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution: More than half the world could be considered middle class.
This is our world today, marked by rapid urbanization, sizable and still growing middle classes, and unprecedented physical and digital connectivity. It is a world that has lifted literally more than a billion people from extreme poverty, but still leaves far too many behind. It is a world of growing aspirations even amid extraordinary challenges. It has been a world of rising income per capita – and rising inequalities everywhere. This is the world that should be understood by policymakers in the run-up to the COP28 climate conference in the UAE later this year. We need to understand recent history to appreciate the present – and to craft a sustainable future.
In a sense, COP28’s location reflects the changes of our world over the past five decades. The “before-and-after” pictures of the UAE – shared on the internet or hung on the walls of government offices – often show dusty streets with modest development in the 1970s, quickly replaced by Manhattan-style skylines and bustling airports.
Today, the UAE is widely acknowledged as a global trade, tourism and transport hub; a major global investor; a regional leader in future-facing industries; and an important bridge between the emerging world and advanced economies. Few saw the rise of the UAE in these terms when it was a young nation that declared independence in 1971. While the before-and-after pictures of the UAE are stark, few other nations think so actively about what the future should look like. As UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs Mohammed Al-Gergawi recently noted: “Government leaders and policymakers must think of themselves as designers of the future.” In other words, they must take the long view, planning not for the next five years but for the next 50.
Policymakers must also be willing to face the truth with honesty. That truth, as UAE climate envoy and COP28 president Sultan Al-Jaber said recently, is that the world is “way off track” in terms of achieving the reduction in global temperatures laid out by the 2015 Paris Agreement. “The hard reality is that, in order to achieve this goal, global emissions must fall 43 percent by 2030,” he said. Al-Jaber, who is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and minister of industry and advanced technology, is well positioned to lead COP28. His early energy experience was forged not in fossil fuels, but as the CEO of Masdar, the global clean energy player with a $20 billion-plus portfolio of renewable projects in more than 40 countries. The UAE has been one of the most active clean energy investors worldwide.
Given the political and investment attention being paid to the energy transition, it is conceivable that we are headed for scalable breakthroughs in renewable energy. But the world will still need fossil fuels for quite some time, both for sustained development and poverty eradication. With nearly 800 million people still lacking electricity, fossil fuels will be the cheapest and fastest way to bring them that life-altering force. The UAE can serve as an important mediator between industrialized and developing countries. Let’s be frank: Our climate is in a mess now mainly because of industrialization in Europe and the US, the world’s largest historic emitters. Wealthy nations from the Global North lecturing the Global South on climate change and emissions is rich with irony. As an emerging nation itself, the UAE can help bridge this gap.
There are many multibillion-dollar renewable projects online and in the pipeline in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two of the world’s largest oil producers. Global fossil fuel majors are also investing heavily in renewables. Governments in Europe, like the US, are incentivizing clean energy. Electric vehicle uptake grows every year. The trajectory is clear: We are moving toward broader clean energy use in our systems. When you want to cross a river with no bridge, the adage goes, build one yourself. That will be the task for climate negotiators in Dubai later this year. To ensure that the so-called Development Age is a period of triumph, not tragedy, the world needs a bridge to transition between the fuels of the past and the clean energy of tomorrow. COP28 may be the last opportunity to produce one.