Tools and Weapons with Brad Smith

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: The connection between AI and energy

Episode Summary

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber is the President of COP28, the UN Climate Change Conference hosted by the UAE last year. He's also the CEO and Managing Director of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), where he leads efforts to produce cleaner energy today and invests in sustainable energy solutions for the future. In this episode, Dr. Sultan shares how his leadership united diverse stakeholders to adopt the UAE Consensus. He also discusses the deep interconnectedness between AI and green energy, and how each can propel the other forward.

Episode Notes

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber is the President of COP28, the UN Climate Change Conference hosted by the UAE last year. He's also the CEO and Managing Director of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), where he leads efforts to produce cleaner energy today and invests in sustainable energy solutions for the future. In this episode, Dr. Sultan shares how his leadership united diverse stakeholders to adopt the UAE Consensus. He also discusses the deep interconnectedness between AI and green energy, and how each can propel the other forward.

Episode Transcription

Brad Smith: I'm Brad Smith, and this is Tools and Weapons. On this podcast, I'm sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We'll explore technology's role in the world as we look for new solutions for society's biggest challenges.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: I think they're interdependent. I don't think they can ever be separated, and I do believe that by integrating AI and energy, we can unlock economic and social value.

Brad Smith: That's his excellency. Dr. Sultan Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates or UAE. Dr. Sultan is the CEO and managing director of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company or ADNOC. He's also the founding CEO and chairman of Masdar, the world's largest investor in renewable energy, and he was the president of COP 28, last year's Global UN Conference on Climate Change. If you're thinking the CEO of an oil company is an unlikely choice to lead global efforts to combat climate change, you're not alone, but it's his expertise in oil and renewable energy that positioned him so well as a uniquely qualified leader in the climate dialogue. In this episode, Dr. Sultan explains the critical role oil companies need to play in the transition to decarbonizing energy production.

We discussed the relationship between AI and green energy and how each at their best propel the other forward, and how bold personal leadership in the face of skepticism helped him bring people and industries together to form the UAE consensus. Last year's landmark agreement negotiated at COP 28 in Dubai involves some of the largest commitments made to combat the climate crisis since the 2015 Paris Climate Accord itself. To hear more conversations like this one, I invite you to follow or subscribe to the podcast wherever you're listening now. My conversation with Dr. Sultan Al Jaber Up next on Tools and Weapons. Well, Dr. Sultan, thank you for joining me here in Redmond, Washington. You've been here for the CEO Summit that we hold every year, and this is an opportunity to share with the world, if you will, a little bit about what we're all talking about.

Brad Smith: And as is the case, I feel like everywhere part of what we're talking about is the environment, the future of planet Earth, and you have played a unique role. Not only have you done such important work leading ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, but I'd love to ask you a little bit about the two years that you spent working as the president of COP 28, a COP that was in Dubai last December, one that people questioned, would it be successful? Could it possibly lead to a breakthrough? And it did. This work that you did was not all new to you. You've been focused on the energy transition, in particular, throughout so many parts of your career. Can you share with us a little bit about the challenge you took on when you took the leadership role at ADNOC itself? How did you think about what you needed to accomplish?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Well, first thank you very much, Brad, for inviting me to the Microsoft CEO Summit, and for giving me this opportunity to speak to you. Many people use the word innovation, but here, in Microsoft, I can comfortably say that Microsoft truly defines the term, and has really contributed to shaping the 21st century. And I'm glad and excited to be given this opportunity and to be here with you and with everyone else participating at this very special, very special event. To your question, the mandate I had in ADNOC was simply centered around three main areas. One is to transform ADNOC and make it be the most advanced, progressive global energy company. Second was to decarbonize ADNOC and help ADNOC be the least carbon intensive energy producer. And the third objective of my mandate was is to future-proof ADNOC through, of course, adopting best in class, most advanced low carbon solutions and technology, including, of course, AI digitization across our operations while also expanding our scope in ADNOC to cater for low carbon solution investments, new technologies, renewable energy, as well as gas investments outside of our own borders.

And what we have come across in our transformation journey in ADNOC is the fact that AI can play an enablement role in helping achieve our mandate. And it is important for everyone involved in the space to realize that AI is not only accelerating the change, but in fact is changing the pace of change. And if we take a step back, there are three megatrends that will shape the future of humanity over the next 10 years. And they are as follows. One is the transformative growth of AI. The second is the way the energy transition is being translated. And the third is the rise of emerging markets and the importance of including the global South. And I think if we integrate the AI and energy sectors more effectively, we can reduce emissions while we ensure sustainability and prosperity through driving social and economic value everywhere.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: In our view, globally, there are 1,600 large data centers that currently consume 400 terawatt hours of power. And we all know that this number will double by 2030, adding 700 terawatt hour in demand. That is the equivalent of the entire electricity consumption of Canada. Meeting this demand would require a huge amount of energy. For example, we will need not less than 20 to 25 nuclear reactors to be added in the US only to meet this growing demand in energy. And we know that is not going to be an easy task to deliver. And of course, given the intermittency and storage challenges of renewables, we will need up to 200 bcm of gas annually to bridge the gap. And of course we need AI to help the stabilization of the grids and the upgrade of such existing national networks, as well as the fact that we need to start thinking how do we integrate base load and intermittent power as part of our grids to help ensure the stability of our supplies.

Our collective challenge is going to be centered around making this system also as close to net-zero as possible. And we do believe that AI is a huge part of the answer. In fact, AI, in our view, is going to be a critical success factor in helping achieve that. Here. I'd like to add another point. While I fully appreciate that the discussion have been very much centered around our ability to meet that growing demand through generating more electrons, we need to start focusing on how do we generate more electrons by being efficient, and by optimizing the current energy system before we start thinking of the new energy system. I promise you, saving electricity or electrons today is going to be much cheaper, much faster and much easier. So it is our view that we need to start thinking how do we make the current energy system as efficient and as optimized as possible while we continue to think how we build the new energy system that is low carbon.

Brad Smith: How do you think about the connection between AI and energy?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Well, I think they're interdependent. I don't think they can ever be separated. And I do believe that by integrating AI and energy, we can unlock economic and social value. AI is already impacting the demand side of the equation. AI can make grids smarter through predictive analytics, and of course more can be done on the supply side with AI to help integrate renewable energy and other energy sources. And we should, of course, apply machine learning, energy management systems, and digital twins to every energy intensive process. And in ADNOC, for example, we already do this, we are already applying AI, and we have been able to reduce our emissions by 1 million tons in only 2023. And of course we also delivered and created stranded value in the process. There is, of course, much more we can do, and demand from the AI sector is in fact creating a very unique investment opportunity for developing a new energy system.

And like I said, in the UAE, we have been viewing this as an opportunity for us to create more relationships and more partnerships. And we are currently exploring many new opportunities of co-investments renewable energy projects globally, and our objective here is to make more green electrons available for this transformative growth of AI worldwide. We were, in the United Arab Emirates, as an energy country, we embraced the energy transition very early on. We continue to invest in reducing our carbon emissions from our current energy system while we started investing in low carbon solutions and in renewable energy. And because we do view the integration of AI and energy and energy and AI as a new opportunity, and in fact a critical success factor, I intend to convene the key players in technology and in energy in Abu Dhabi in November, ahead of ADIPEC and COP 29, to drive solutions for the AI's energy needs, and to develop solutions from AI to reduce emissions and to unlock value from the current energy system while we continue exploring building the new energy system.

Brad Smith: One of the things that I think is interesting, that I've had the opportunity to learn a little bit about, that I was really not aware of before, is that not every unit of energy, even the same kind of energy is the same when it comes to carbon emission. Take something like natural gas. You have been leading work to reduce the carbonization of natural gas, and you've set an aggressive goal to reduce it by another 25% by the end of this decade. Can you share with us what you've been doing, what you find the most promising?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: We decided, very early on, that we will develop our own approach to the integration between renewables and hydrocarbons. So as such, while we continue to invest by applying scale and capital and renewable energy, we also did the same in the gas business. We applied capital and we applied scale in helping commercialize and scale up the carbon capture and storage technologies. And we have demonstrated a very unique capability in Abu Dhabi, where we capture CO2 and we reduce our carbon emissions. We also believe that by integrating AI into energy and energy into AI, we can build a bridge to a low carbon high growth future. And I do believe we will be able to unlock the greatest opportunity in socioeconomic development since the First Industrial Revolution. We view the integration between AI and energy and energy and AI as a true game-changing new economic opportunity that we will continue to invest in.

Brad Smith: I think that connects naturally with another point that I've heard you make, which is the world needs more electrons. Can you share with us what that means to you?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: In simple terms, we need to be pragmatic about our approach when it comes to being able to meet the global energy demands. Data centers are growing, and we need to come to terms with the reality that the investment in the energy sector today will not enable the energy system to cater for such demand. As such, we need to approach it differently. We need to focus very much on efficiency and optimization from the current energy system, and in parallel, start thinking the new energy system, which will consist of oil and gas, the decarbonized oil and gas with the lowest carbon intensity, gas as a bridge, nuclear, and renewable energy.

Brad Smith: One of the interesting, I think, about ADNOC, as well as the role that you took to bringing together everyone for COP 28, is that this energy transition, a transition that requires more energy, not less. It's worth remembering we still have 700 million people on earth that don't yet have electricity at all, so we have a lot more electrons that need to be unleashed. It is going to require the energy companies of today to play a critical role in building the energy infrastructure of the future. And in addition to what you've described here, reducing the carbonization of something like gas, you've also led the way in constructing solar. I think most people would not know that the largest solar power plant in the world is in the United Arab Emirates. You've also made that a signature part, I think, of the work you've been doing for, perhaps, almost two decades now. Tell us a little bit about what you've done in that space and what you take away from having done that work.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: In fact, we do have, in operation today, in the United Arab Emirates, the three largest solar power plants in the world, and we're very proud of that achievement. But this journey started back in 2006 when the leadership of the United Arab Emirates took a bold decision to launch a new economic development program entirely dedicated to sustainability and to renewable energy. And at the time we launched Masdar, a company that has been able to become, in a very short period of time, the largest renewable energy investor in the world.

Brad Smith: Which you were the founding leader.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Exactly. I was the founding CEO and I continue to serve as the chairman of Masdar, and we're very proud of its achievements. Today Masdar processes about 26,000 megawatts of operational assets, and we're staying the course and expanding our portfolio to a hundred gigawatt worth of green electrons from all renewable energy sources across the globe. Masdar is already in more than 40 countries, and we are continuing to invest around the globe in all renewable energy sources. So to that point, the reason why we were able to do this is simply because we understand the dynamics of energy, and we know that renewable energy will continue to play a growing share in the global energy markets.

And because of our interest and our genuine intent towards continuing to play a global responsible and reliable role as a global energy supplier, we invest in the renewables and we continue to apply capital and scale to help advance the technology, reduce its cost, and enhance its efficiency. In parallel, we invest in gas, and recently over the past couple of years only, we've started investing in large scale gas developments. We believe that gas is considered to be a low carbon solution, and with that also we apply carbon capture and storage to help decarbonize the operations of those gas developments and to continue our role as a responsible energy player.

Brad Smith: One of the places I've had the opportunity to visit near Abu Dhabi is called Masdar City, and you've played an instrumental role in what is going on there. Can you share with our listeners what is going on there?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Yeah, well, let me just take a step back first and explain to you how the Masdar City concept came about. In 2006, when the leadership of the UAE took a bold decision to establish this new economic development program entirely dedicated and focused on renewable energy and sustainability, and we launched Masdar as a progressive advanced energy company that will pursue the advancement and the deployment of renewable energy technologies at scale, one of the main pillars was to establish the ecosystem that will bring together the policymakers, the financiers, the businesses, the philanthropists, those who want to incubate technology, in one place, in one space, under one roof, for them to rub shoulders against each other and generate new ideas and help commercialize and advance those technologies. And that was the rationale behind establishing Masdar City. And I'm proud to say that Masdar City has become a true destination.

In fact, it has become a premier destination for those who are interested in clean energy and renewable energy technologies. Today it houses more than 4,000 small and medium-sized companies from all over the world, as well as Mohamed bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence, a homegrown graduate level university entirely focused and dedicated to AI. And it also houses IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental agency supported by the UN and its member states, for it to promote the adoption of renewable energy. So Masdar City is a true important pillar of the overall Masdar vision, and it has become a true landmark, globally, as a catalyst for the advancement of renewable energy.

Brad Smith: One of the things that you have said in the past is that there will come a day when the last barrel of oil will be shipped. And I think for most people who might be listening to this, they would think about that moment and assume that it would be a good day for the planet and a sad day for the countries that are oil producers today. But that's not the way you've described it. How do you think about that?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: In fact, that was a statement made by His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and [inaudible 00:20:51] the president of the United Arab Emirates. This was back in February 2015 to the World Government Summit. Back then His Highness was Crown Prince. He took stage and he made a call to action, which have become, really, a comprehensive policy of how we conduct business and develop our investment strategies in the country. He simply said, "I want us to celebrate the delivery of the last barrel of oil." And that became a policy for government institutions as well as the private sector. And that was a call to action, where everyone stepped up and geared up towards that goal. And that's why we started investing in low carbon solutions, advancing in new sources of energy, as well as a very ambitious, bold approach to investing in technology across the spectrum of business.

Brad Smith: You were not necessarily the obvious choice to be the president of COP 28, and yet you dove in, and it was a challenge. I know. There was so much that went with the role. Inevitably, every year, but more so given the role that you had played, that you do play, with fossil fuels, there were many skeptics, there were many critics, but you persevered. What was that journey like for you?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Well, I must say that this wasn't the easiest task I've had in my career. In fact, to be honest, this was probably the most complex, the most challenging responsibility I've ever had in my career. Having said that, it was a very rich experience. It was a personal challenge. And while I had real and true genuine interests in helping address this global challenge, I also took it as a personal challenge. And at the end, the perceived conflict of interest turned out to be an asset. In fact, it turned out to be what have enabled this success story at COP 28. It was our ability to convene the world. It was our ability to speak a pragmatic, practical, realistic language with everybody.

It was our ability to reach out and to bring everyone under one roof. And it was the inclusivity approach that we adopted throughout the journey of hosting COP 28 that have enabled us to deliver such an unprecedented outcome. Who would have imagined that we would be able, not only to bring the heavy emitting industries or the oil and gas the industry to participate, but to get them to commit to very aggressive targets. This wasn't anything that anyone expected. But it was, again, our convening power, our knowledge of the business and the industry, and it was the support that we have received from many like-minded partners around the world.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: And I must say, if it wasn't for the vision, the commitment, the dedication of our leadership, and how they inspired us throughout this journey, and if it wasn't for the support, the unwavering commitment I personally received from many like-minded partners around the world, I don't think this would have been possible. So I owe the success... I mean, the success would not have been possible if it wasn't for all the support we received, and of course, our own determination to drive the solutions and to correct course, building on the fact that we have been entrusted by the world to conduct the first ever global stock take.

I must say, when I reflect now on the journey of COP 28, this was a great experience for us as a country, for us as the presidency team, and for everyone involved. And again, it proved that multilateralism still works. And given that we come to the table with the right mindset, being positive, and by allowing for unity and solidarity to be what will make things happen rather than allowing polarization and pointing fingers. I must say that COP 28, through the UAE consensus, was a game changing COP. The result was unprecedented. And we continue to stay the course. We continue to be determined to help advance this agenda, and to find the necessary solutions to make the world a better place.

Brad Smith: The breakthrough that resulted has been called the UAE Consensus. For all of us, could you tell us a little bit about what that consensus embodied?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: COP 28 was a paradigm shift. And that was what we really intended to do by hosting COP 28. COP 28 succeeded against all the odds simply because we decided, very early on, to really understand the root cause analysis behind global warming, climate, and the lack of progress since the Paris Agreement. And we decided, also very early on, that we wouldn't kick the can and that we would confront the challenges and help address this global challenge as a true global citizen. And we did not shy away from any issues. And we decided that we would do this by being very inclusive, and we did indeed include everyone from everywhere in helping shape the vision of COP 28. As such, we decided, very early on, to go on a fact finding mission. I simply traveled the world. I met with everyone, any potential stakeholder to the COP process, we had the chance to meet with and to discuss and to engage.

Starting from public and private sector governments, policymakers, think tanks, NGOs, civil society, indigenous peoples, youth. And here I mean everyone. We included everyone. We did not in any way leave anyone on the side, and we wanted to really understand what it would take for us to create legacy for the United Arab Emirates and for the COP 28 presidency. We also decided that we will step into the arena and that we wouldn't allow for us to be seen sitting on the sidelines of this discussion. And that's why, very early on, because of our vision and ambition for COP 28, and the ultimate goals and objectives we set forth for ourselves, and the fact that COP 28 was the first ever global stock take since the Paris Agreement, and the fact that we came very early on and we said we want to set the record and correct course in order for us to be able to keep 1.5 within reach, and in line with the science. At the end of COP 28, we did in fact surprise those who doubted our ability to deliver such results, and we proved the doubters wrong.

While also we inspired the optimists with unprecedented results. The UAE consensus made history by delivering the first COP to include text on a fair, just, orderly, and responsible energy transition. In a way, it took the world 27 COPs to get to this point in Dubai for us to get the 198 members of the process to agree on such language. And it was the first COP to lock in renewable energy targets and efficiency targets by 2030. And it was the first COP to address the loss and damage, and to establish the loss and damage fund and start operationalizing it and activating it, and to start filling the fund. And that happened in the first day of COP 28. Of course, we were the first to set a 2030 deadline to end deforestation, and we were the first COP that have established a parallel track to the Conference of Parties, which we also called The COP, but here we mean Conference of Partners.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Partners here were represented by business, private sector, philanthropy, technology companies, financiers, and many that were not originally and initially included as part of the COP process. And it was this meaningful, and truly meaningful way of engaging and including everybody that have helped shape a different understanding of how to conduct the COP, and how we integrate business, private sector and philanthropy as part of the process to deliver unprecedented results. Key to how the UAE consensus came together was simply inclusivity. And if it wasn't for inclusivity, I don't think it would have been possible for us to reach such an agreement that is as progressive and as comprehensive as the UAE consensus. Another key differentiator, also, for COP 28 was the fact that the UAE leveraged its close ties with key players, like the United States of America, China, India, and others around the world, and used our convening power to help bridge between the misunderstandings and the misperceptions and the gaps between them, and to get them to unite and to adopt solidarity rather than polarization and pointing fingers, to get to the end game of the UAE consensus.

Inclusivity also meant engaging the private sector, business, and philanthropy like never before. We included, as part of the engagements, heavy industries, and we got them to unite around very clear decarbonization targets. The oil and gas industry stepped up for the first time ever to commit to zero methane emissions by 2030, and to net-zero by or before 2050. And this was, on its own, a game changer for the COP. And here the oil and gas industry was able to demonstrate their genuine interests in the driving the solutions. Rather than only being seen as part of the problem, now they are being seen as part of the solution. And that was a big achievement for COP 28. The finance committee also, not only showed up, but they did commit with $85 billion in new money to help climate finance, and also to develop a new finance framework that includes the reform of the international financial institutions as well as the World Bank, and to help activate their mandates in a way that will help accelerate new finance solutions to help address this global challenge.

Brad Smith: Your point on inclusivity, I think, is so important. One of the things you and I have had a chance to chat a little bit about, when you've been here, is not just the way that you traveled the world, but all the places that you went to that were unusual destinations. And of my favorites was the trip that took you to Brazil where you met with indigenous peoples there. Can you tell us a little bit about what that meant to you to meet people? What did you hear? What do you take away from that experience?

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: In fact, my experience in Brazil, meeting with the indigenous peoples, as well as other similar engagements and meetings I had in Bangladesh and some countries in Africa and India, and then many other places around the world. These meetings, these engagements were not only rich in terms of the content I was able to collect and absorb, but also it was game changing and how we viewed, how we can custom tailor and approach that will include them and help push the ambition and the agenda forward. And I must say, if it wasn't for those type of engagements with such indigenous people in places like Brazil, I don't think it would have been possible for us to really practice the true meaning of inclusivity.

Brad Smith: Well, I think it's a bold vision, but not just a vision, as you put it. A lot of work is going into it. We clearly have a lot of additional work in the years ahead. I look forward to talking again, taking stock of the progress. Certainly the world is in a better place as we look to Cop 29, because of the progress that you and others made, really, under your leadership at COP 28. So let me say thank you and I look forward to talking again.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Thank you very much, Brad, for the opportunity. I appreciate it, and I look very much forward for our collaboration and our partnership.

Brad Smith: Thank you.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber: Thank you.

Brad Smith: You've been listening to Tools and Weapons, with me, Brad Smith. If you enjoyed today's show, please follow us wherever you like to listen. Our executive producers are Carol Ann Browne and Aaron Thiese. This episode of Tools and Weapons was produced by Corina Hernandez and Jordan Rothlein. This podcast is edited and mixed by Jennie Cataldo with production support by Sam Kirkpatrick at Run Studios. Original Music by Angular Wave Research. Tools and Weapons is a production of Microsoft, made in partnership with Listen.