Home » “We are the last call to save this planet”: Future Energy Leader Ghada Rahal on driving energy transition action

“We are the last call to save this planet”: Future Energy Leader Ghada Rahal on driving energy transition action

by Madaline Dunn

As climate records tumble, the inequality gap widens, and energy inequity grows, the imperative for a fair, fast and funded energy transition has never been greater. However, this energy shift is not happening fast enough. 

The recently concluded World Energy Congress in Rotterdam aimed to accelerate the speed of action while highlighting the importance of centring people and the planet. 

A key theme throughout was the importance of plural energy transitions, which Congress was told would happen at different paces in different places, with ​​no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

ESG Mena’s Madaline Dunn sat down with Ghada Rahal, Future Energy Leader at the World Energy Council, to ask how this energy transition “agency” can be balanced with unified action towards net zero. 

Collaboration is an energy transition cornerstone 

“Nothing can be done without collaboration,” said sustainability professional Rahal, noting that while every country has its own national agenda, renewables strategy, and energy policies, countries in regions like the MENA share many of the same challenges. 

“I think collaboration should be regional; we should have a regional strategy, regional unity, and an organisation, which will be the focal point between different stakeholders and different organisations from different countries to lead the MENA transition.”

Rahal said that the World Energy Council (WEC) “can be the core” of linking this regional action to the global context, with the Future Energy Leaders playing a key role.

The WEC launched the Future Energy Leaders program over forty years ago and connects young energy experts from diverse backgrounds to drive forward energy transition solutions. 

“WEC has a variety of outstanding brains, talented people from different backgrounds, we have the technicalities, we have the research backgrounds, we have a variety of fields we’re working in,” she said. 

Rahal highlighted the potential that lies in the WEC collaborating with international entities to enable policymakers to leverage this expertise: “If the WEC can collaborate with the European Commission, or the states in the MENA and be the voice of us, we can get to the policymakers and influence their decisions.”

“They need us. We have the expertise; we have the data; we are young, and we are the future energy leaders. We are the last call to save this planet, this generation,” said Rahal, adding: “They have the policy, the power, the regulations…we both need each other.”

Indeed, this representation of youth within energy transition conversations and action plans is critical. Half the world’s population is under thirty and is set to be most impacted by climate change. Yet, this demographic is massively underrepresented and often excluded from climate change conversations, particularly marginalised young voices.

“It’s not a solo sprint, it’s a global marathon”

Emphasising the importance of diverse representation and participation, Rahal called for people to be centred in the transition: “Enough talking about only KWhs, let’s start to talk about humans because without humans, without cultivating trust, without being inclusive, without growing the local communities, there will be no transition.”

“It’s not a solo sprint, it’s a global marathon,” added Rahal, noting that stakeholders across and beyond the energy space must work together.

“From government, regulators [who] have the power, to academia in sharing awareness, to the private sector, to the funding organisations, to the banks, and, of course, to us, the youth, and especially the women, because their participation is one of the key catalysts in the energy transition.”

Rahal noted this is especially crucial in the MENA, where few women are involved in the energy sector. 

Indeed, while globally, the figure sits at an already low 22 per cent, in many MENA countries, representation is below 15 per cent. 

“You still don’t see many women in the energy sector,” said Rahal. “I work in the energy sector; I work in the technical part [and] I don’t see a lot of women in the energy domain. If they are present, they would be more on the admin side. Few are [in] the field, and even fewer are in leadership positions.”

“We need to be more active about it…we need women to be in more leadership positions in the energy sector.” 

No silver-bullet solution

While there is much disagreement over how the energy transition will be realised, one thing is clear: there’s no silver bullet solution, and moving the needle requires various solutions working in tandem.

Rahal said that greater efforts are required to “speed up” existing, mature technologies, such as renewable energy, electrification and energy efficiency technologies, and scale up the “new players.” Here, Rahal listed hydrogen, e-fuels, carbon capture and other carbon removal technologies.

Rahal acknowledged the hype currently surrounding hydrogen and noted that while the region benefits from “vast land” and “abundant sunshine,” infrastructure and policy are lacking.  

“We need to invest in infrastructure. We need to modernise the grids. We need to have regulations and policies,” said Rahal. 

Renewable hydrogen also currently makes up just a small percentage of total production, while some estimates indicate that meeting 2050 goals will require around $9 trillion in investment. 

Regionally, we are seeing a wave of investment in this fuel, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia taking the lead in this regard. However, experts warn that green hydrogen should not be used for “broad decarbonisation.” 

Instead, the industries that need it the most, those that are categorised as “hard-to-abate,” such as steel, chemicals, and shipping, should be prioritised.

Beyond both the technical and financial considerations, production is also resource intensive, requiring nine litres of water for every kilogram of green hydrogen produced. In a water-scarce region like the MENA, this is highly problematic and requires further scaling desalination capacity, which could have potentially broad social and environmental consequences. 

From one hyped-up “solution” to another, CCS is increasingly being pegged as a “climate saviour” by some, but it is undeniably marred by a number of issues. 

This highly controversial technology is pricey, energy-intensive, and currently unproven at scale. Despite this, it’s raking in investment. In 2023, investment doubled, reaching a record high of $6.4 billion.

Rahal called these kinds of technologies “game changers” that should be “at the forefront,” especially in a region like the MENA that’s still so heavily reliant on oil and gas. 

“The oil and gas industry will never be a green source, never. But, [I’ll be realistic], I will not be able to phase out fossil fuels this year, next year or the year after. So, why not implement these technologies to at least reduce the emissions from these rigs while phasing out?”

However, while these technologies are being highlighted as a stopgap and a solution to capture the emissions that current renewable energy technologies and measures can’t eliminate, there are concerns that they lay the way for a fossil fuel-based future. 

Just last month, ministers from the G7 countries agreed to end the use of “unabated coal power plants by 2035,” leaving the door open for continued production with CCS. Likewise, at Congress, a number of parties argued that fossil fuels don’t need to be “eliminated,” just decarbonised.

Currently, 82.5 per cent of existing CCS capacity uses captured carbon in enhanced oil recovery (EOR); CO2 capture rates also vary widely, ranging from 65 per cent to just 10 per cent. Meanwhile, CCS uptake across steel, cement, chemicals and hydrogen is currently either low or non-existent, according to international research group Zero Carbon Analytics. 

“We need to have realistic hope”

Beyond the techno-fixes and policy shifts, Rahal said another crucial yet often overlooked component of the transition is behaviour, which is where education has a key role to play. 

“Here comes the role of schools and universities to educate the younger generations to be more educated and aware about climate change,” said Rahal, noting that these generations will be on the frontlines of the worst effects of climate change.

“It’s so important to have people really telling the story of climate change to these kids.”

When asked about how optimistic she feels about hitting the renewable energy tripling target and the global 2050 net zero target, Rahal said we need to be “realistic hopers.”

“Of course, we can’t move forward without optimism. We need optimism. But also we need to be realistic at the same time,” said Rahal, noting that 2050 globally is a “massive target,” requiring “very fast” work. 

Indeed, with levels of progress varying widely among different regions, Rahal called for efforts to be tailored to local challenges, resources and needs through a “global lens.”

Adding: “I think it’s a very challenging target. But I believe in the power of the youth. I think we’re on a good track. But we need to take the fast lane to achieve it.”

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena

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