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From climate protector to energy manager

March 21, 2022

Germany's Green Party wants to phase out fossil fuels. But now Economy Minister Robert Habeck has found himself petitioning Arab states for more gas supplies to Germany. DW's Jens Thurau reports from Abu Dhabi.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck and the UAE's Environment Minister Mariam Al Mheiri
Habeck's Gulf tour comes as Berlin scrambles to reduce its heavy reliance on Russian energyImage: Jens Thurau/DW

Robert Habeck, former co-leader of the Green Party, now Germany's vice-chancellor and economic affairs and climate action minister, was standing in the scorching heat in front of a huge field of solar panels near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, on Monday. And he was thinking about the war in faraway Ukraine. "It's not easy to put this together. It's the same for all of us who have come here from Germany," he said. "That one's thoughts are with the people who are dying right now while we're talking here."

The UAE is the second stop on the minister's trip to the Middle East, after Qatar. Habeck planned the visits spontaneously after Russia invaded Ukraine, taking along a large business delegation. There are two purposes: To help him look for alternatives to Russian gas supplies and to move closer to a sustainable energy economy that can avoid future dependencies. To do that, he has to do business with as many partners as possible.

Habeck: 'We must free ourselves from Russian energy'

In the Emirates, this involves plans such as the purchase of green hydrogen. In other words, the kind of hydrogen that is produced by electricity from renewable energy sources and is intended to replace coal as an energy source in German industry at some point in the future.

The oil emirate has long been betting on the future and investing oil billions: The rulers of Abu Dhabi want to invest a whopping $163 billion (€148 billion) in a sustainable economy, and two of the world's largest solar power plants are already located here. This Monday, Habeck signed five agreements for better cooperation in this field in the coming years.

Green hydrogen: A mammoth challenge

Bringing hydrogen, in liquid form and huge quantities, from the UAE to Germany is a project that still "needs the solution of many technical problems in both countries," Habeck said during a meeting with Emirates Environment Minister Mariam Al Mheiri. But he seems determined to take on the challenge.

Habeck has acknowledged that he does not yet know the Middle East well, but sees himself as a door opener for German companies. That has gone down well with German business representatives, such as Martina Merz, CEO of the industrial group ThyssenKrupp. "Mr. Habeck is doing a good job for Germany here," she told DW. "In my view, he sees himself in the talks as someone who wants to make connections, for the benefit of the green transformation and cooperation between countries."

Robert Habeck shaking hands with Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Kasim al-Abdullah Al Thani. Only the latter wears a COVID mask
Habeck spoke to Qatari Trade Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Kasim al-Abdullah Al Thani about a long-term energy partnershipImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

At the beginning of the trip, in the Qatari capital, Doha, the focus was not on sustainable futures, but on the current crisis in Europe.

Habeck spoke with Qatar's emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as well as with the ministers of economy, trade and foreign affairs. The talk was about gas: a lot of gas that Germany urgently needs right now after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The emir and Habeck agreed on a long-term energy partnership.

Qatar's gas wealth

Qatar has the world's largest reserves of natural gas, after Russia and Iran, as well as the infrastructure to liquefy it for transport. In 2019, the emirate exported nearly 107 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which would be enough to completely cover Germany's needs. Qatar currently supplies about 30% of its liquefied gas to the European Union, but almost none of it arrives in Germany, which still lacks LNG terminals. This is because Germany has so far relied mainly on cheap, pipeline-bound gas from Russia.

Hydrogen - energy source of the future?

Germany would currently have to import LNG via terminals in neighboring countries, but, in view of the shock caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, two terminals are now to be built quickly in Germany, probably in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel on the north coast.

During the trip, Habeck calculated that the terminals could be ready for operation in five years — "even though such projects in Germany like to take three times as long to be completed," he added wryly. "But maybe we'll do things differently." A Green minister, committed to saying goodbye to fossil fuels, now finds himself pressing for the rapid construction of LNG terminals.

LNG - better than diesel?

Trust, respect — and human rights

Habeck's visit to Qatar and then to the UAE is primarily about building trust. The Qataris in particular have not felt particularly respected by Germany in recent times. Twice, for example, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier canceled visits to the emirate, first because of the pandemic, and most recently because of the Ukraine war.

But, once the war had broken out, Habeck was in a hurry to plan this trip. Among his business delegation is Markus Krebber, CEO of the energy giant RWE. For Krebber, the trip comes at just the right time: "It's important to meet in person after such a long time during the pandemic and to resume contacts." Habeck is also right to make Germany less dependent on Russian supplies, the energy executive emphasizes, though it will certainly not happen overnight.

For Habeck, this was anything but an easy journey. The emirate is under fire for its human rights policy and poor working conditions. So gas from Russia is to be replaced by that of an autocratic Emirate? After his meeting with representatives of the Qatari government, Habeck made a point of remarking, "I brought up the poor conditions here for the thousands of foreign workers — and no one left the room."

When Habeck returns home, he will have to explain this completely new role as a pioneer of gas imports to his own party. After all, the Greens want to get away from all fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But the war in Ukraine has changed many perceptions and certainties, including for Habeck.

This article has been expanded since it was first published.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau