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From the outset, the planners of the coming United Nations climate conference in Dubai, known as COP28, have worked to put the private sector at its center. The United Arab Emirates has become a wealthy country and global player not only because of its oil wealth but also through a focus on deal making and attracting private sector investment—and all of those elements have featured in how it approaches this year’s conference.
Much of the public attention around how the private sector will engage at COP has focused on the deeply controversial role of the oil and gas industry at the conference—and understandably so. Sultan Al Jaber, the COP president, is the CEO of the U.A.E.’s state-owned oil company and has made a point of engaging oil and gas companies ahead of the summit. In this column, I want to focus on a less-noticed but arguably just as important sector that has become a focal point ahead of the conference opening later this month: the renewable energy industry.
As is often the case, pre-conference negotiations have been fractious. A bright spot has been the widespread support for the tripling in the deployment of renewable energy capacity by 2030. The diplomatic effort, led by the European Union, the U.S., and the U.A.E., has gained support from dozens of countries.
The logic is two-fold. Most obviously, rapidly deploying renewable energy is necessary to combat climate change. (A United Nations “stocktake” report outlining the state of play for climate action ahead of COP28 described scaling up renewables as “indispensable.”) “This is significant,” Maroš Šefčovič, an executive vice-president of the European Commission who oversees E.U. climate policy, told me in September. “By tripling the output of renewables, you can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions.”
And there’s a political reason for enthusiasm, too: it’s much easier to back building a new clean energy industry than finding ways to wind down an old one.
At a COP preparatory meeting I attended in Abu Dhabi last week, conference organizers were keen to tout a collaboration between governments and industry to chart a path forward for renewables and keep the Paris Agreement target alive. Behind closed doors, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental membership organization representing more than 160 countries, and the Global Renewables Alliance, an industry group representing thousands of companies, presented the roadmap they cooked up in partnership with the COP presidency.
The message was fundamentally optimistic, but the coalition underscored that a lot of work remains. Countries need to reorganize their electricity sectors, clean technology supply chains need to be strengthened, and workers need to be trained. All of that comes on top of a need to invest an average of $1.3 trillion across the globe annually by 2030, including and especially in riskier emerging markets. Making the money flow requires the tall order of reforming international finance. “The task is monumental, but it’s feasible,” Francesco La Camera, the head of IRENA, told me in Abu Dhabi.
Much public support for renewables—particularly in the U.S.—has come in the form of subsidies. And, while the coalition calls for diverting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, that isn’t the primary demand it’s making of governments. Instead, the coalition focuses on wonky but important technical fixes. Governments can, for example, reform the way that electricity is bought and sold to accommodate more renewable energy. And revised permitting measures can get renewable energy projects off the ground faster.
If you’re a clean energy wonk, these recommendations may be old news. But what is new is who is making them, and where. The COP process is at its core a negotiation between governments—or at least it has been. While the private sector has shown up to recent COPs in increased numbers, the urgent need for companies to get projects off the ground has made the private sector even more central, and the conference’s organizers are keen to push that agenda.
“It’s really refreshing to see that we’re now involved,” Bruce Douglas, who heads the Global Renewables Alliance, told me right before heading into a meeting with COP officials and others. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be us that will be investing, risk taking, and delivering and deploying and operating all this renewable capacity.”