DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It’s the first Sunday of the COP28 climate conference. The temperature is 30C. Under the Dubai sun, a billionaire is in a hurry.
“Let’s run you guys,” Andrew Forrest tells his entourage. A little out of breath, he climbs into a six-seater golf buggy, a common sight around Expo City, which is hosting the U.N. summit.
Built for the 2021 world’s fair, it is vast, covering nearly two square miles. The buggies ferry global leaders, CEOs, and the otherwise rich or powerful across the site.
“Can you squeeze in?” Forrest asks, as it becomes clear not everyone is going to fit in the buggy. “No? OK. Let’s go. Zach loves walking.” Zachary August, one of Forrest’s aides, accepts his fate gracefully. Then the boss is gone in an electric whirr of wheels.
The climate Davos
There aren’t many things that could make Forrest run. The bombastic mining tycoon is Australia’s second-richest person. He is used to having the ear of the world’s most powerful people. Joe Biden, Narendra Modi, Li Qiang — all have sat down with him in the past year or so. John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, will pay a visit before the summit is over.
But the meeting which has just been locked into his schedule at COP28 could have big implications for how he makes his next fortune. Forrest hopes it could matter for the future of the planet, too.
He built his company, Fortescue, by digging iron ore from the red dirt of the Pilbara region in Western Australia — where he was born — and shipping it in huge, 270,000 tonne freighters to fuel China’s steel industry.
But in the last two years, “Twiggy” — as he is known in Australia — has emerged as an unlikely evangelist for the green energy transition that the climate summit is trying (in theory at least) to accelerate.
For a mining tycoon turned eco-warrior, change can’t come soon enough. The planet needs saving — and there’s money to be made. And on this particular Sunday, there’s nowhere better in the world to bring those two goals together than COP28.
The U.N. climate conference — the COP, or conference of the parties — has come a long way from its origins 28 years ago.
COP1 was held in Berlin in 1995 and had fewer than 4,000 attendees. This year, more than 100,000 are estimated to be here — and big business is represented like never before. It’s no longer just a U.N. negotiation. It’s a trade fair, a climate Davos.
“All the culprits [responsible for climate change] are in the one spot. That’s the best part about COP,” Forrest said, as POLITICO tracked him over the first weekend in Dubai.
Filling the diary
One of his goals is to pioneer fossil-free shipping, with the use of an experimental clean fuel, green ammonia. And that’s what this meeting is all about.
It came in at short notice. Forrest was sitting in a reserved seat, in the front row of an auditorium in COP28’s security-checked “Blue Zone”, listening to a talk from former U.S. vice president Al Gore.
Forrest calls Gore “the great man.” He whoops at the end of the first part of the presentation, at which Gore declares that COP28 must agree to a “phaseout” of fossil fuels or be deemed a failure.
But then Forrest’s phone lights up.
“I have to go. Something major,” he murmurs. As Gore wraps up and the audience applauds, Forrest rushes for the exit.
Emerging into the Dubai sunlight, he puts on his Cartier sunglasses. He’s dressed in a navy suit and white shirt, with gold tie and black Chelsea boots made by R.M. Williams (an Australian brand owned by Forrest’s investment company Tattarang.)
In 10 minutes, he’s in the buggy, zooming along the sun-drenched avenues of Expo City.
“The objective” of the imminent meeting, he says, as the neat palm trees and gleaming exhibition centers zip by, “is to address something which I’ve lambasted the world’s port authorities about. Not allowing pollution-free ships in.”
Let’s talk business
Within this decade, Forrest insists, he wants his iron ore freighters to be ammonia-fueled, with no carbon emissions.
To make his point, he has berthed one of his ships — the Green Pioneer, a 3,000 tonne industrial supply vessel — in Dubai marina, 20 minutes’ drive from the COP venue.
The ship is only a prototype, fueled by diesel on its journey from its base in Singapore to Dubai, but with the potential soon to be part-fueled by green ammonia. It’s far from the finished article, as Forrest freely admits, but emblazoned with its big green Fortescue logo, it towers above even the luxury yachts of the global elite.
Forrest doesn’t do subtle.
“This is the cutting edge,” he says back at COP, as the buggy pulls up outside a hangar-like building with the words ‘Energy Transition Hub’ in giant letters down the side. “At this meeting.”
He is ushered in. It’s an exhibition space where some of Dubai’s biggest firms have set up sleek trade stands. One of the largest belongs to DP World, the Emirati ports and logistics giant that handles around 10 percent of the world’s container traffic.
Forrest and his team are directed upstairs into a meeting room.
A few minutes later, another powerful person with another entourage appears. Dressed in traditional white robes and headdress, the Emirati businessman completes a phone call, then sweeps in to meet Forrest.
This is Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, a senior member of one of Dubai’s elite families and the chairman and CEO of DP World.
COP may be a good place to do business, but otherwise Forrest says he is skeptical about what the summit can achieve.
“As you heard the great man [Gore] say on stage, if we get a resolution to phase out fossil fuels this COP is a success. If not, it’s a failure.” He thinks there are too many oil and gas firms here in Dubai trying to wrest the agenda away from climate action.
But while it’s true that fossil fuel lobbyists are out in force, so are clean energy entrepreneurs and investors — including Forrest who, despite his background, now counts himself among the latter. These green pioneers, too, are here to pursue profit-making projects, prospective business partners, and opportunities to influence.
It’s a change in the nature of how COP is run (and for whom) that reflects a wider global economic shift.
“Investment in the transition to cleaner technologies already topped a trillion dollars last year,” said Joss Garman, executive director at the European Climate Foundation. “With that figure set to more than double in the coming years, and with decisions at summits like [COP28] offering big signals as to the future of important industries, of course leaders from the worlds of business and finance are paying close attention.”
America’s green subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act, China’s cornering of the solar and electric vehicles market, the EU’s green deal plan — all are creating the conditions for a world where there is no contradiction between climate action on the one hand and profit on the other.
And if fighting climate change is now no longer just a moral calling but a business one, then few people embody that shift like Andrew Forrest.
He has announced that Fortescue will cut fossil fuels out of its operations by 2030. “Real zero,” not net zero, as he repeatedly insists.
The company has been restructured, with the mining business under one chief and a new subsidiary, Fortescue Energy, under another. The latter aims to become a world leader in the production of the fossil-free fuel green hydrogen and other clean energy sources. An investment arm, Fortescue Capital, will also provide backing for green projects worldwide.
His strategy has confounded many — and he is a standard-bearer that some in the green movement will find uncomfortable. Fortescue’s mining and shipping operations produced 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2023, according to its own reports (more than some small countries), and the mining company is currently in a legal dispute with an Aboriginal community in Western Australia.
Meanwhile, some still harbor doubts about the role green hydrogen can play in the energy transition, given the large amount of renewable energy required to produce it which, critics say, could be better used elsewhere.
Billions or bust
Forrest’s big bet will pay off if the world shifts rapidly away from fossil fuels. Everywhere he goes — from the Oval Office to the halls of the world’s great universities — he’s selling it as an inevitability.
But the future he’s trying to summon into being by force of personality and cold hard cash isn’t a given. Nowhere is that clearer than in Dubai.
The UAE COP28 hosts are among a number of major fossil fuel producing nations with plans massively to expand their oil and gas production in the coming years — direct competition for Forrest’s greener fuels. His arrival in Dubai is less tanks on the lawn than ammonia-powered ships in the marina.
“We know the demand is out there. Our view is, we will build it and they will come,” Fortescue Energy CEO Mark Hutchinson told POLITICO aboard their ship in Dubai: “I know they will pay a premium when we have it. The reason is that their customers are demanding them to change.”
The pivot to green energy from dirty mining is not, Forrest insists, the result of a prick of conscience. “It’s an understanding of the climate reality.”
He has coordinated a letter to world leaders, signed by dozens of researchers (Forrest himself recently earned a doctorate in marine science), on the growing risks of “lethal humidity” — episodes of high temperature and high humidity “beyond what humans … can endure for more than a few hours.” He’s personally lobbied everyone from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to King Charles III about the issue, he says.
He lays it on just as thick in private as in public. He tells them, Forrest says, “you will have blood on your hands,” holding up one work-toughened paw and rubbing it with the other.
But this moral cause now dovetails nicely with his mercantile instincts.
“Whether it’s out of the goodness of my heart or not, you cannot pay any salaries, cannot pay any taxes, cannot contribute to anyone unless you’re making profit,” he says brusquely. “Let’s just cut straight to the quick. Unless you can make a profit you start to lay off employees, you start to be denuded of shareholders, and your company ceases to exist.
“Making profit is the art of sustainability.”
The approach has won him influential fans.
“Andrew Forrest is the world’s great disrupter. And I love it,” growled U.S. climate envoy John Kerry at an event on the Green Pioneer later in the conference.
Kerry had agreed to attend just 24 hours before. Forrest, who had left Dubai, scrambled back to the Emirates, while his under-slept team organized a party of around 200 guests.
The Veuve Clicquot flowed liberally on deck as Forrest showed off the engineering to Kerry, their shirts open at the neck, hands firmly on each other’s shoulders. Later, Forrest would emerge in a hardhat, signed by the former secretary of state.
When Forrest emerges from the meeting with DP World, he’s feeling chipper. He won’t share details of what’s been discussed but he thinks bin Sulayem is listening.
His next stop is the Museum of the Future, a 30-minute drive away. He’s due to join a panel which includes David Lammy, foreign affairs spokesperson of the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party, which is tipped to win an election expected next year. In the back of a car, an aide briefs Forrest on who Lammy is, mentioning that he works “under [Labour leader] Keir Starmer.”
“Right,” says Forrest. “He’s important,” and makes a point of saying hello when he arrives at the panel.
Has he met Starmer, likely to be the U.K.’s next prime minister? “The king introduced me to him,” Forrest replies.
He’s less enthusiastic about current prime minister Rishi Sunak and his plan to “max out” North Sea fossil fuels. “I said I’d ship manufacturing to North America. And that’s exactly what’s happened,” Forrest said. Actually, Fortescue opened a new battery manufacturing plant in the U.K. in October, but Forrest wouldn’t let inconvenient truths get in the way of the story he’s here to tell.
Reflecting on his new ventures, he says he sees no contradiction between how he made his first tens of billions — and how he hopes to make the next.
He is, he says, “able to cross the floor between academics, researchers, industrialists, and politicians.”
They “can’t lie to me … can’t say I’m just an airheaded greenie or a scientist who doesn’t understand industry and that someone has to pay the bills. That’s why I have a responsibility to lean forward on this issue.”
As he speaks, he lifts his right leg and rests it on the opposite seat. He injured it badly in a fall in north-west Australia’s Kimberley wilderness eight years ago. All the rushing about at COP has made it ache. “It’s a new knee,” he says.
But he considers himself “very lucky” to have had the accident.
“I was standing over a ledge of a large deep pool and it gave way,” he recalls. His leg caught in a tree root sticking out of the bank, bending his knee backwards. “I was underwater and there’s no way I could get out. It was just … over. I remember being in intense pain and looking up at the surface. The water had gone silvery still, which meant that I’d been down there for a little while.”
He was able to pull himself free — “the most painful experience of my life” — and spent a long time recovering.
“The kids said: ‘Dad, you’re in a fucking wheelchair. You’ve always wanted to study the oceans. Now’s your shot.’
“I’ve always been worried about the environment, particularly the oceans, and that … endeavor was really my epiphany to say, actually, this is where the world is going. This is where we must change.
Karl Mathiesen reported from Dubai and Oxford in the United Kingdom.
This article has been amended to clarify a reference to “all the culprits” gathered at COP28.