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The UAE’s transition to a net-zero future

The United Arab Emirates is leading climate action through investments in advanced technology and partnerships with other nations and private sector leaders.

In partnership withthe ADNOC Group

As the impacts of climate change like desertification, biodiversity loss, pollution, and severe weather persist, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is approaching the green transition and decarbonization with a great sense of urgency. Between its ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement, its $160 billion investment in renewables over the next 30 years, and its green initiatives collaborations with other nations and private sector leaders, the UAE has made aggressive efforts toward a net-zero future—leading its region in the process.  

While full-scale decarbonization will require a systemic shift in the UAE’s energy, manufacturing, and transport sectors, there is an enormous opportunity for low carbon sustainable economic development, says UAE Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology, Her Excellency Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri.

Building the low-carbon  industries of the future means leveraging advanced and emerging technologies like AI, IoT, and robotics to improve efficiency, incentivizing energy efficiency among manufacturers, and promoting scalable decarbonization best practices.

As one of the world’s largest integrated energy companies, ADNOC, is faced with a generational challenge of minimizing emissions while maximizing energy outputs, says ADNOC Executive Director of Low Carbon Solutions and International Growth, Musabbeh Al Kaabi.

Beyond implementing nature-based solutions such as mangrove planting, ADNOC is implementing and piloting new technology to permanently remove carbon through mineralization, says Al Kaabi. Startups and players outside the traditional energy sector are also emerging with new innovations employing AI, supercomputing, and big data analytics that can help accelerate the energy transition.

By establishing a resilient science and technology ecosystem within the UAE and investing in clean energy projects and renewables worldwide, the nation looks to address climate change challenges regionally and globally, says Al Amiri. Looking forward, these investments and policies will create new green business models and services that can enable the UAE to achieve both carbon neutrality and strong economic growth through its pragmatic, resilient, and inclusive approach.

This episode of Business Lab is produced in partnership with the ADNOC Group.

Full Transcript

Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I'm Laurel Ruma and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.

Our topic today is decarbonization. From carbon capture and storage technologies to sustainability goals for 2030 and beyond, companies and countries are facing serious challenges. However, technology continues to play a part in helping both enterprises and governments find opportunities and help usher in new innovations.

Two words for you: going green.

My guests are Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology for the United Arab Emirates. And Mr. Musabbeh Al Kaabi, the Executive Director of Low Carbon Solutions and International Growth for ADNOC.

This podcast is produced in partnership with ADNOC.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining me.

Musabbeh Al Kaabi: Thank you.

Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri: Thank you, Laurel.

Laurel: Let me start with you, Your Excellency. Advanced technologies are critical to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 across all economic sectors. What's your overarching approach to decarbonization and how are you leveraging advanced technologies to tackle climate change?

Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri: Laurel, the approach towards decarbonization needs to be a comprehensive whole-of government understanding across several key sectors that requires both impact and creating the necessary opportunities to circumvent those challenges. Being able to do that requires not only policy shifts and policy changes but requires a deep understanding of utilization of technologies across different sectors and development of new methods of production or new methods of lowering our carbon footprint so that we're able to achieve the 1.5 degrees commitment.

As we are approaching it within the Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology, the focus is, at the moment, on the infusion of the right technologies across key sectors. It is especially hard to abate industrial sectors, ensuring that carbon capture methods and also methods for production of energy and cleaner energy and utilization of different energy sources becomes a key pillar of development across different sectors.

And, the country has invested quite heavily in early stage research and also in deployment of different energy methodologies, investment in decarbonization across key industrial sectors and the utilization of technology within our current industrial sectors to increase efficiency. And as you know, efficiency is the first step towards creating the necessary impact and outcome. We have also looked at our research and development priorities and incorporated climate change quite heavily into it. And the solution has always been around energy production, transport systems, and a comprehensive whole-of value chain approach to significantly reduce emissions and certainly play a critical role in tipping the equation to the right side in ensuring that we're carbon neutral.

Laurel: Thank you. And Mr. Al Kaabi, ADNOC is a diversified and integrated group of energy companies that are largely state-owned by Abu Dhabi, the largest of seven emirates, which make up the UAE. ADNOC is traditionally known as an oil producing company, among the 10 largest in the world. So with sustainability becoming a global imperative, and the UAE's goal to cut emissions, how is ADNOC working to build a new energy future?

Mr. Musabbeh Al Kaabi: When you look at the energy trajectory going forward, at least the demand side, it's clear that in the short, medium, and long term there is a significant growth in the energy demand globally. Of course, there will be different sources of energy and renewables will take a growing role going forward, but there is this overarching theme which is energy transition. But energy transition, we cannot consider energy transition without also considering the affordability and energy security. So the trilemma of the energy transition, affordability, and security is going to be a very complex landscape going forward. Our job as a responsible energy company is to ensure that we play our role to ensure that we supply the energies of the future. So we started this journey of decarbonization a long time ago, and let me take you back to the early days of ADNOC.

In the 1970s, at that time, we took a progressive approach to embrace sustainability in our operation by embracing new technologies. And let me give you specific examples of liquified natural gas (LNG). LNG technology at that time was very nascent and it was not a common practice for oil producing companies and countries to capture emissions and embrace new technologies. So the LNG at that time had a positive impact on two sides. One in the supply side by reducing the flaring, capturing the natural gas, and also in the consumer side where we offset a heavy emitter power generation like coal. So it had a net positive impact on both sides. ADNOC also is embracing, of course, carbon capture technologies. We’re very proud that we established a carbon capture project early in 2016, the first project in the region at commercial scale: 800,000 tons per annum and with a plan now to go up to 5 million tons by 2030.

We also sent new emerging energy sources like ammonia. Three cargos—test cargos—were sent to Asia and to Europe. Also, today we are sourcing 100% of grid power from zero carbon, solar, and nuclear energy, ensuring energy efficiency improvement across our operation. And we also apply, of course, nature-based solutions with the planting of millions of mangrove trees. We also recently allocated $15 billion investments to progress various projects across our diversified value chain in the low carbon solutions. So as I mentioned earlier, we're going to expand our CO2 capture capacity by 500%. We are going to further electrification of our operation, $3.8 billion [allocated] to electrify offshore operation, representing up to 50% reduction in CO2 intensity. We are implementing energy efficiency programs. We are also taking the new measures to build on ADNOC’s long-standing policy of zero routine gas flaring. We're growing our investments in blue hydrogen, a new world scale, 1 million ton per annum, low carbon ammonia plant at TA'ZIZ.

And we are also a major shareholder in the Abu Dhabi future energy company, Masdar, which currently has a capacity of over 20 gigawatts of renewable energy, which is enough to power over 5 million homes and plans to grow this to well over 100 gigawatts by 2030. On the R&D front, almost 80% of our projects are dedicated to sustainable growth. For example, we are exploring ways to harness the power of geothermal energy and taking concrete steps to mature the hydrogen value chain and hydrogen technologies going forward. So there are a lot of sets of technologies that we are optimistic to see them maturing and addressing the decarbonization agenda.

Laurel: And Your Excellency, how is the United Arab Emirates decarbonizing and greening existing industries and supply chains? For example, how important is the country's regulatory landscape and standards infrastructure?

Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri: The UAE is tackling this from a different perspective based on the maturity of industries. So first, from the perspective of existing industries, mature industries and industries that are typically known to be carbon producers. We've got different methodologies to ensure that this becomes a whole-of-supply chain effort. We're looking at every part of the value chain, and I can give you an example of utilizing carbon capture systems in hard to abate industries where we have a very good and scalable program to decarbonize our steel production with Emirates Steel partnered up with both ADNOC and Masdar to capture and utilize up to 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. And that's just one mechanism by which we are approaching carbon capture. Another mechanism is to utilize and embed across our different policies. So we've got the in-country value program along with our integrated technology transformation program that includes an industrial technology transformation index that has sustainability as one of the key pillars of technological transformation.

And what it does is effectively looks at efficiencies, looks at mechanisms to cut out carbon production, re-utilize it within the system, ensure that materials are being utilized to the maximum of their capacity, ensure that waste is being reduced and all of that is being utilized through both digitization mechanisms, Industry 4.0 technologies, better informed production processes. And from a policy perspective, we're also going to the level of consumers to ensure an end-to-end mechanism that not only focuses on production and industries on both upstream and downstreams, but also looks at a comprehensive utilization and transportation of key industrial, both from a raw materials perspective and also from a production perspective and end product perspective.

From a policy perspective as well, within our Operation 300 Billion, sustainability is embedded very well across all pillars. And what this does is transform decarbonization at scale from an economic burden to a market opportunity and gives us a whole-of policy efforts to be able to drive new industries, then become the utilizers of a lot of the offtake that comes from existing industries and allows us to better integrate our ecosystem towards creating the necessary impact and outcome. Then comes our policies that now look at what is beyond the current technologies and current industries and its advancement across different sectors. And that ensures a whole-of nation holistic approach to the right policies, the right metrics, the right mechanisms to enable our carbon-neutral agenda and ensure that industries are playing a vital role in this important transition.

Laurel: Thank you. Mr. Al Kaabi, beyond traditional emissions reduction efforts like forestation, there is a need for higher rates of CO2 removal. ADNOC recently allocated $15 billion to projects, as you mentioned, that will help accelerate its low carbon goals. What are some of the latest research and development investments into CO2 removal, like carbon capture and storage (CCS), that ADNOC is pursuing, and how do they complement the UAE's overall sustainability goals?

Mr. Musabbeh Al Kaabi: The importance of CO2 removal cannot be understated. In January this year, a coalition of researchers published a report urging a rapid scale up of carbon dioxide removal technologies. It found that of the 2 billion tons of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere each year through human intervention, only 0.1% currently comes from carbon dioxide removal initiatives. In order to avoid the worst effects of warming, the study said that we need to increase the rate of carbon removal from the atmosphere by a factor of 30 over this decade and a factor of 1,300 by 2050. Across ADNOC, we are implementing and piloting various forms of CCS and carbon dioxide removal technologies. As mentioned, our facility captures up to 800,000 tons of CO2 per year from the Emirates steel industry. At Fertiglobe, we capture CO2 and use it to make urea. Earlier this year, we announced that we will also take the excess carbon dioxide captured from Fertiglobe's UAE operations and inject 100% of it in Abu Dhabi's onshore carbon aquifers. It'll be the world's first fully sequestered CO2 injection pilot.

In Fujairah, which is one of our northernmost Emirates, we're partnering with a startup company to pilot ways of mineralizing CO2 forever within rock formations. The process involves extracting CO2 from the atmosphere using direct air capture technology. We will then mix it with the sea water and inject it underground into rock formations. The whole process will be powered by clean energy from Masdar, which effectively makes the pilot carbon negative. It's still early stages, but if we are successful in using technology to accelerate this natural process, it would pave the way for us to mineralize billions of tons of CO2. There are advanced discussions underway with a range of other CCS and CCUS [carbon, capture, utilization, and storage] companies too. We are looking at innovations that turn CO2 into usable products, such as sustainable aviation fuel. Nature-based solutions also have a large role to play in our strategy. We have an active program to plant 10 million mangroves by 2030. Mangroves serve as a powerful carbon sink.

Laurel: Very good points. Your Excellency, how is the UAE capitalizing on the green transition? What is the UAE doing to pave the way for building green industries of the future? For example, how is it promoting R&D in green business models?

Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri: So Musabbeh just spoke about specific examples of the utilization of carbon, the mechanism of capturing carbon, and also looking at natural processes that will then enable the entire greening approach, especially for industries and provides a necessary creation of industries that I spoke about earlier and more importantly both the economic value and the necessary offset to be able to manage this change. From an overarching policy perspective, how that translates is an investment into decarbonization focused at carbon capture and utilization as a main pillar. And that looks at both the science behind it and also looks at the real world implementation and impact, furthermore. 

UAE supports green infrastructure and clean energy projects worldwide and is investing in renewable energy ventures worth around $16.8 billion in over 70 countries. Now, how that translates into real research and development outcomes is an advancement and acceleration of green energy production and infrastructure that is absolutely necessary for the right energy transition and the right mechanism to be able to create the necessary impact.

In terms of spearheading green and climate technology development, we are looking at cutting edge partnerships for research and developments both to advance locally specific needs for the UAE and its industries and also look at the wider global ecosystem to be able to do that. And we have taken a practical step to ensure leadership in the space by forming the Emirates Research and Development Council and committing to increase our research and development spend to 2% of GDP by 2031, where we will spend $160 billion in the next 30 years to further develop and deploy green innovations in the UAE and around the world. In terms of our priorities, hydrogen and it's the whole value chain from production all the way to utilization and transportation, from a perspective that is logical and usable by industries, carbon capture technologies, desalination, and finding the right mechanism for water desalination, water production that is not energy intensive.

Digital technologies and smart mobility solutions will be able to encapsulate a whole-of package approach towards decarbonizing and creating necessary mechanisms to capitalize on the green transition. That all encompasses together with the technology transformation program that I spoke about earlier that focuses also on our key industrial players and allows us to move forward. 

So again, to reiterate from a policy perspective, you're looking at current industries and decarbonization in current industries, creation of new industries that are focused on the byproduct of the green transition and being able to also gain economic value and competitiveness there. And that's where the opportunity comes in. And then at the end to pull things together, technological advancement key towards each industry, research and development that drives the necessary opportunities forward and develops the right mechanisms to solve the current challenges and also be able to create the necessary opportunities. And that all then drives the impact that we all foresee for both existing technologies and future technologies that will drive the energy transition, the green transition, make decarbonization a reality and a fact of development across industries.

Laurel: Thank you. And Mr. Al Kaabi, reaching those decarbonization goals requires technology beyond renewable energy and forestation. Artificial intelligence is now in the conversation across many technological innovations and future thinking solutions. How are data analytics, AI, and other emerging technologies shaping the energy industry and helping to meet low emissions and zero emission goals?

Mr. Musabbeh Al Kaabi: Advances in things like AI, big data analytics, and supercomputing are perhaps the most exciting and important technological development of our era. The ability to collect and analyze such huge volumes of data instantly gives us the ability to make decisions that ensure efficiency, sustainability, and safety across our operation. Our Panorama Data Analytics Center has given us extensive monitoring and measurement capability across our operation value chain. In the last five years, we've achieved a 15% saving in energy expenditure and aim to achieve another 5% reduction within the next three years. Advanced data analytics tools have helped us perform centralized productive maintenance, virtually eliminating flaring. We've also successfully piloted AI technology at our gas facilities. By simultaneously crunching data from hundreds of IoT sensors, our AI emission monitoring platforms to give us real-time guidance on the optimum parameters to operate facilities so that we generate the most energy with the least emissions.

AI is also helping to ensure that activities like drilling are as energy efficient as possible. By performing rapid data analysis, the AI is able to identify challenges and determine the optimum parameters to minimize energy expenditure. These advances go hand in hand with another exciting field: automation and robotics. Robotic operations reduce or entirely eliminate the need for heavy equipment used for things like firefighting and the consumption of high carbon source material. For instance, one of our underwater inspection vehicles piloted last year removed the need to take rigs to docks for maintenance. We calculated that this one device alone, the size of a small box, will cut greenhouse gas emission by up to 30,000 tons over five years. Elsewhere, robotics and drone inspection devices are ensuring that we provide around the clock effective safeguards against challenges such as methane leaks.

Laurel: One last question for you, Your Excellency. In being the first in the region to set these sustainability goals, the UAE is in a unique leadership position. So leading up to COP28, what would you like to see from public and private sector leaders in terms of driving sustainable industrial development?

Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri: We need to all start with the key realization that the transition that we're going to see with our climate is an impact on all of us, regardless of what sector you belong to, regardless of what economy, what level, it will affect some more than others, and it will create both a negative impact and will have some forms of damages across the board. To be able to form the right partnerships, we need to stop thinking as governments, public sector, private sector, and more as an overarching whole-of ecosystem approach. And what that really means is that we are all stakeholders in this. In the correct energy transition, in the correct green transition, in the right mechanism for decarbonization, in being able to commit and being able to deliver on our commitments, especially with regards to decarbonization. And how do you really translate that into effective mechanisms?

It's not about partnerships first, it's about the mindset and approach, decoupling support for decarbonization from growth. It could be coupled and will be. And we've spoken at different examples where the Emirates has looked at fostering economic growth together with creating the necessary equilibrium to ensure that it's not impacting our decarbonization drive. And we are not doing this in silos. It's not a public policy. It's not only a regulations drive, it is a drive of bringing partnerships on board, of working together with both the private and public sector as joint stakeholders, of finding the right mechanisms for technology adoption across industries, building the right use cases where different industrial players can learn from it. And then driving that internationally.

And I want to point to one example of multilateral global partnership, which is our signature on the energy security and industrial accelerator agreement with Germany in 2022. That signaled our commitment to investing in projects of energy security decarbonization and carbon action—that's multilateral, multi-impact, broad, and does the necessary change while creating the necessary impact and overarching mechanism. And what we want to work, as a global community that is equally impacted by the climate change, is pragmatism rather than political statement, rather than emotional overarching messages, but practical, real, on-the-ground action that creates the necessary growth that we want to see in the world without impacting our climate and without impacting the wellbeing of everyone on this planet.

Laurel: And for you, Mr. Al Kaabi What are some innovations and emerging technologies (in decarbonization, hydrogen, renewable energy sources) that you look forward to seeing deployed as the 2030 benchmark approaches?

Mr. Musabbeh Al Kaabi: Well, ADNOC is proactively developing the market for hydrogen by pursuing a balanced strategy based on low-carbon and renewable hydrogen. So let me start with low-carbon ammonia. It has an important role as a stepping stone in the broader energy transition because it is cost competitive, can be scaled up quickly and has lower carbon intensity than many other fuel in the market. In addition, use of low carbon hydrogen now will help to create demand for this type of energy at scale, supporting the longer term commercialization of renewable hydrogen, which is also known as a green hydrogen. So in recent months, ADNOC has made a number of announcements in relation to clean ammonia and hydrogen that are helping to build the hydrogen value chain. We are a major shareholder in Masdar, a clean energy powerhouse that aims to produce 1 million tons of green hydrogen by 2030, saving an equivalent of more than 6 million tons of CO2 every year.

We have sold several cargos of low carbon ammonia to customers in Europe and Asia. These test cargos are a critical step to enable our partners to test a new application of clean hydrogen and hydrogen derivatives while also supporting the commercial growth in priority markets. The demonstration cargos proved that there is a growing demand for hydrogen and willingness to test its application. The whole story about green hydrogen and ammonia can be traced back almost to similar early days of LNG. In this nascent and emerging source of energy, I think there is a stronger need to see a collaboration between customers and producers. And a long term partnership is a very important step to ensure that we progress and scale up the hydrogen applications.

We also announced a new world scale of 1,000,000 tons per annum low carbon ammonia plant at TA'ZIZ, which is now in the design phase and will include international partners. Similarly, we recently began collaboration with Masdar in the UAE to develop up to one gigaton clean hydrogen hubs. Regarding renewables, we are a major shareholder in Abu Dhabi future energy company, Masdar, which currently has a capacity over 20 gigawatts of renewable energy, which is enough to power, as I mentioned earlier, over 5 million homes, and plans to grow this well over a hundred gigawatts by 2030.

Laurel: Thank you both very much for what has been a fantastic episode of the Business Lab.

Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri: Thank you very much, Laurel.

Mr. Musabbeh Al Kaabi: Thank you.

Laurel: That was Her Excellency, Sarah Bint Yousif Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology for the United Arab Emirates, as well as Mr. Musabbeh Al Kaabi, the Executive Director for Low Carbon Solutions and International Growth for ADNOC, who I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review overlooking the Charles River.

That's it for this episode of Business Lab. I'm your host, Laurel Ruma. I'm the global director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you can find us in print, on the web and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com.

This show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, we hope that you'll take a moment to rate and review us. Business Lab is a production of MIT Technology Review. This episode was produced by Giro Studios. Thanks for listening.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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