Guest column

Texas expert: Evaluating COP28's progress amid the energy transition

The controversy that dogged the climate summit shows the extent to which misinformation, politics, and outdated beliefs reign supreme — and hinder progress toward net zero, says this Texas expert. Photo by COP28 / Anthony Fleyhan

Before it even started, COP28 drew sharp condemnation from activists and left-leaning politicians who took issue with the climate conference location: the United Arab Emirates, a leading oil and gas-producing nation.

“Time to say ‘the F-words’?” CNBC asked in one headline, referring of course to “fossil fuel.” A group of US and EU lawmakers called for the removal of COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, head of the UAE’s national oil company Adnoc. And former Vice President Al Gore slammed the host nation and the summit itself, saying it was “abusing the public’s trust” because al-Jaber couldn’t be an honest broker of a climate deal.

I get it. The optics were certain to raise eyebrows and provide low-hanging fruit for critics. But the extent to which the conference became a global flash point was surprising even to the most cynical of onlookers. Finger-pointing took center stage, relegating rational discussion to the shadows. Misinformation and distrust flourished as a tired old energy transition narrative took hold — one that pits villain oil and gas against hero Renewables in an epic fight to save the planet.

At Workrise we follow data, not ideology, you’ll know that success in the energy transition is an all-of-the-above proposition. And in this regard, COP28 made progress. Reading the text of the agreement it’s clear that the delegation has adopted the view that the dominant suppliers of energy to the world — oil and gas companies — must be a part of the solution going forward, and accepted the reality that fuel sources like nuclear and natural gas must be leveraged if we are to reach our 2050 targets.

This pragmatic approach makes sense all the time, but it has particular resonance now as the industry undergoes a sea change in the form of consolidation. Nowhere is this M&A wave more keenly felt than in Texas, where the value of 2023 mergers and acquisitions in the Permian basin reached more than $100 billion after massive deals including ExxonMobil's proposed $60 billion purchase of Pioneer Natural Resources and Chevron's $53 billion acquisition of Hess. These kinds of deals will bring a seismic shift in the way the industry operates — including by enabling companies like Exxon and Chevron to find new production efficiencies, and further bake emissions reduction into their operating models.

But what becomes clear when reading the COP28 agreement is that in nearly all cases, the room was too divided to put measurable targets on the board that are enforceable. Nearly every “commitment” comes with words that provide loopholes and outs.

So what we have is a “deal” that stops short of the kind of black-and-white commitments that create accountability — a deal with language folks can live with, but that won’t meaningfully change realities on the ground. Which begs the question: Why is that, and why can’t we do more?

Two words: dogma and hostility. They are the root cause of the polarization that gripped the conference and steers the wider conversation about the energy transition worldwide. With those powerful forces holding sway, we will never get to agreements that have the teeth required to move the needle on this global challenge.

At the end of the day, it was impressive to see Al Jaber emerge from the summit with a deal of any kind, despite the fire storm that he fueled with his comments earlier in the conference.

What the world needs is leaders who are willing to put aside ideology, rely on proven facts, and grab every opportunity they have to move the chains. Just as important, those leaders need to understand the sensitivity of this topic — and how easily it becomes cannon fodder for those who seek to weaponize it. Without the right leadership, how can we hope for the general public to engage meaningfully in this debate, and to understand what their vote — whether they cast it with their wallet or at the ballot box — truly means?

So long as both sides of this debate dig in and throw stones at each other, the journey to net zero will continue to get longer and more arduous.

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Joshua Trott is chief revenue officer at Austin-based Workrise, which is a labor provider and supply chain solution for energy companies — including some in Houston.

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A View From HETI

Houston could have ranked higher on a global report of top cities in the world if it had a bit more business diversification. Photo via Getty Images

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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