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A Different Shade of Green Policy: The UAE’s Bold Vision for the World Climate Summit

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is hosting the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 28) in Dubai, positioning decarbonization efforts as a global priority amid increased fossil fuel demand due to a worldwide energy crisis. Recognizing the urgent need to transition from being a major hydrocarbon exporter to a sustainable post-oil economy, the UAE is investing heavily in renewable energy initiatives, advocating for an equitable energy transition model, and pushing for practical actions and increased funding for climate solutions at COP 28, while leveraging its position as a bridge builder between developed and developing nations.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is set to host the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 28) in Expo City Dubai at the end of this year. The world climate summit occurs during a global energy crisis when demand for fossil fuels has increased in many countries. However, the UAE views COP 28 as an opportunity to again reiterate decarbonization efforts as a global priority, even as some countries scale down investments in alternative energy.

As the host of the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28), the United Arab Emirates aims to leverage its unique position as both a significant fossil fuel producer and an ambitious advocate for decarbonization to unite divided interests, promote equitable climate responsibility, and drive practical measures towards the global goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Climate change is recognized as a collective threat which will burden millions of people globally. However, some countries and ecosystems are considered more vulnerable to climatic hazards because of geographic factors and socio-economic conditions that make adapting measures a more challenging endeavor. The global warming debate between emerging economies in the so-called “Global South” and developed nations in the North and Western hemispheres has long delayed effective action against climate change. The UAE sees COP 28 as a chance to end the blame game and promote an equitable energy transition model that considers all parties’ specific concerns.

The average global temperature has increased by around 1.1°C (2 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial times, and efforts to keep its rise below 1.5°C (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) are already falling behind schedule. The Paris Agreement (COP 21) settled 2050 as the deadline for bringing to zero the global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and keeping global warming to no more than 1.5° C to prevent detrimental effects from producing irreparable damages to the planet’s livability. The feasibility of ambitious net-zero targets is increasingly questioned. Even though low-carbon energy investments have attracted growing capital, the demand for massive investments to support energy transition has only been partially met, and cost-competitive solutions are not equally accessible. COP 28 provides another opportunity to take the practical measures needed to close the gap between where the world stands today and where it needs to be in 2050.

The UAE’s Climate Change Bona Fides

Located in the central-eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, desertic and arid lands cover the UAE for large swaths of its territory. As a result, the UAE is already significantly exposed to harsh climatic conditions, such as extreme temperatures, scarce groundwater resources, and sporadic rainfall. If the ripple effects of global warming heighten, the country is expected to record a deterioration of the already-critical climatic conditions and an intensification of extreme weather events, such as intense heatwaves, sandstorms, and sudden floods. According to the “UAE State of Climate Report 2021” published by the Emirati Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the country will likely face warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and higher water salinity, which would have severe consequences for ecosystems, inhabitants, and infrastructure.

Since the mid-2010s, the UAE has made significant strides in incorporating environmental concerns into the country’s strategic priorities. In 2015, the UAE cabinet released the “UAE Green Agenda 2015-2030” as a blueprint to combine economic growth goals and decarbonization endeavors. After ratifying the COP 21 Paris Agreement in 2016, a ministerial restructuring led to the establishment of the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment to implement mitigation and adaptation policies needed to limit the negative fallouts of global warming. At the same time, the UAE Council of Climate Change and Environment was launched as an authority to oversee the implementation of the Green Agenda and coordination between ministries, local authorities, and private entities of the seven emirates. The “National Climate Action Plan of the United Arab Emirates 2017-2050,” released a year later, outlined a roadmap directly linking the country’s long-term economic growth ambitions with its climate agenda.

As one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon-exporting countries, the UAE feels a mounting pressure to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and develop a sustainable post-oil economic model. Although fossil fuels still represent a sizable portion of the Emirati total power output, the country has embarked on several initiatives to diversify their national energy mix. With record-breaking sunlight exposure, solar energy was a natural choice. Inaugurated in 2013, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park is expected to save over 6.5 million tons of carbon emissions annually and supply 5.0 gigawatts by 2030. Similarly, the Al Dhafra solar photovoltaic project is expected to generate 2.0 gigawatts (enough electricity for roughly 160,000 houses) and mitigate 2.4 million tons of carbon dioxide annually once fully operational. Nuclear energy represents another crucial component of the Emirati roadmap to net-zero targets. Launched in August 2020, the 5.6-gigawatt Barakah nuclear power plant will cover 25% of the domestic energy consumption once fully operational. The nuclear facility consists of four Korean-designed nuclear reactors, the first three units are operating and connected to the grid, and the last unit completed pre-operational testing in July 2022 and is set to start commercial operation by the end of 2023. In addition to solar and nuclear energy, the UAE is exploring clean energy solutions based on green and blue hydrogen technologies to abate GHG emissions.

Bringing Unity to the International Community

Last year’s edition of the UN climate conference held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, delivered mixed results. On the one hand, negotiations led to establishing a “loss and damage” fund to support developing countries severely exposed to the negative impacts of climate change. Financed by industrialized economies, the fund aims at offering financial aid to vulnerable countries, allowing them to better cope with environmental degradation. On the other hand, COP 27 did not bring forward any major development on new emission-reduction commitments and an India-backed proposal to phase out all fossil fuels ran aground, highlighting the gap dividing high-income developed economies, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries, vis-à-vis major emitters and fossil fuel exporters. The promising, but still limited, achievements at COP 27 and the underlying frictions among negotiators demonstrate that much remains to be done in order to reach the conference’s goals.

Last March, the European Union (EU) member states expressed their intention to rekindle talks on the Indian-backed global phase-out motion at COP 28. The EU intends to include the removal of unabated fossil fuels from any country’s acceptable energy mix among its top diplomatic priorities for the next climate summit. However, the reception of green policies at the domestic level remains controversial, even for Brussels. More recently, the EU plan to ban internal combustion engines by 2035 sparked political dissent among the EU countries. Concerned by the ban’s detrimental impacts on their car manufacturing industry, Germany and Italy lobbied for an exception authorizing the sales beyond 2035 for combustion engine vehicles powered by e-fuels—electro fuel is synthetic fuel produced from renewable sources and might be then classified as carbon neutral. While the agreement seems to have ultimately safeguarded the EU’s credibility on green legislation, it also reveals that the political price of green policies continues to weigh much in the EU countries’ calculus. Besides, with oil and gas companies in the Gulf releasing plans to expand their fossil fuel exploration and production capacity, the global phase-out option will likely remain a divisive point.

Another potentially contentious issue involves the recently-established loss and damage fund. While praised as a prime example of climate justice, with wealthy countries shouldering the economic burden imposed by climatic hazards on developing nations, several details need to be worked out at COP 28 before the fund is up and running. These details include what the eligibility criteria will be for accessing the allocated financial resources, how resources will be distributed, who will keep track of the progress of funded projects, and who will contribute to the fund. Disagreements about these operational procedures might result in delays in implementing the fund, further aggravating the already critical conditions of some climatic-vulnerable countries.

As the next host of COP 28, the UAE is responsible for smoothing harder edges between opposing camps and providing an atmosphere conducive to negotiations so a general consensus can be reached. As a fossil fuel producer with ambitious carbon neutrality targets, the UAE is in a favorable position to act as a bridging force.

The UAE’s Opportunity to Bridge Gaps

Since it won the nomination to host COP 28, the UAE has made it clear that it aims to stamp its distinctive mark on the event. Fairness, practical action, and inclusivity are the three main pillars informing the UAE’s roadmap to COP 28. Abu Dhabi has signaled that it wants to give “Global South” voices a front seat at the climate summit. While dismissing the blame game that has long pitted wealthy countries against developing nations on the redistribution of responsibility for carbon emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels, the UAE champions a more balanced approach that highlights the financial constraints of developing countries in adapting climate-resilient policiesies.

Wealthier countries are better able to implement climate adaptation and mitigation measures and to cope with the increasing economic burden of climate change’s adverse effects. As Dr. Yossi Mekelberg, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, told Gulf International Forum: “The UAE sees itself as a bridge builder in advancing global efforts to support the Global South and countries that are most vulnerable in the fight against climate change and the challenges it presents, especially for low-income countries.” At COP 28, the UAE wants to recognize that countries have shared responsibilities when it comes to meeting ambitious decarbonization targets, but also different priorities.

Scaling up efforts that spur concrete results remains a critical component of the strategy to limit global warming under 1.5°C. Past climate summits have led to “grand gestures and pledges that never come to fruition,” Dr. Mekelberg notes, but the UAE is a country the prioritizes speed and impact in its policy-making and will likely use COP 28 to accelerate the design and implementation of climate solutions. Perhaps the best way they can achieve this is by nailing down funding for climate schemes and agreeing to an international carbon trading system, as outlined in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement which “allows countries to voluntarily cooperate to achieve emission reduction targets set out in their NDCs.” More precisely, under Article 6, international compliance carbon markets can be established so as to let countries “transfer carbon credits earned from the reduction of GHG emissions to help one or more countries meet climate targets.” Besides, Article 6 “introduces cooperation through finance, technology transfer, and capacity building, where no trading of emission reductions is involved.” “This is essential to unlock funding for low-carbon technology deployment outside the EU and G7,” Robin Mills, CEO of Qamar Energy, told Gulf International Forum.

The UAE is expected to welcome over 140 high-profile government leaders, 80,000 delegates, and more than 5,000 media professionals at Expo City Dubai for COP 28. As showcased at Expo 2020 Dubai, the UAE has the capability to run such events, but record-breaking attendance must be more than a public diplomacy stunt and should instead convey a sense of equal representation and inclusiveness in order to build a consensus on climate change priorities. Rather than pushing for new ambitious emission reduction pledges or highly-divisive motions, the UAE is more likely to focus its diplomatic energies on plans that combine concrete actions, tangible results, and equitable benefits.

UAE’s Dual Role in Balancing Hydrocarbon Dependence and Encouraging Sustainable Investments

For hydrocarbon exporting countries, climate change is not only an environmental threat, but a looming socio-economic dilemma. The mounting sense of urgency about fast-approaching deadlines for mid-century decarbonization targets has contributed to the acknowledgment that more radical steps need to be taken to favor a smooth energy transition.

While a complete phase-out of hydrocarbon products is an unlikely scenario in the near- and medium-term, the imperative to scale up low-carbon energy solutions prompted the Gulf countries to double down on developing viable post-oil economic sectors and decrease their budget dependence on fossil fuel revenues. Energy transition is a gradual process spread over time and inevitably oil-producing nations must be brought on board to achieve success.

The Emirati leadership’s decision to nominate Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as the president-designate for COP 28 underscores how the Gulf countries perceive climate change and economic diversification as closely intertwined. Several accounts in the West, from environmental groups to climate change activists and climate research centers, questioned Dr. Al Jaber’s appointment as the head of the climate conference, pointing at the conflict of interests of an oil company CEO heading a climate conference. “This criticism comes from a very Eurocentric viewpoint,” Mills told Gulf International Forum. “Before his appointment at ADNOC, Dr. Al Jaber was the founding CEO of Masdar, which under his leadership has deployed more than 20 gigawatts of renewables.” Dr. Al Jaber was also the UAE special envoy in previous COPs, and his versatile expertise in both the hydrocarbon industry and renewable energy sectors is a benefit not a hindrance towards heading COP 28. The UAE brings a nuanced perspective to climate mitigation by having the oil sector and clean energy people sit on the same side of the table and share a common view of the challenge.

As a country keen on moving away from a petroleum-based economy, the UAE also looks at COP 28 as an opportunity to advocate for more investments in breakthrough technologies. By incentivizing a more consistent mobilization of financial resources for renewable energy projects, the UAE aims to contribute to the decarbonization endeavors and generate new jobs while pursuing sustainable growth in the long haul. Abu Dhabi will offer tax incentives, subsidies, and grants to attract investors and businesses engaged in climate-related projects, and can encourage the issuance of green bonds, specifically earmarked for environmentally friendly projects, and sukuk, bonds that comply with Islamic principles. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority issued the first green sukuk in the Middle East to finance renewable energy projects in 2017.

Experienced investment professionals will most likely manage these green investment funds and help channel capital into climate technologies and sustainable projects. The Masdar Clean Energy Fund, managed by Masdar, is an example of a UAE-based investment fund focused on renewable energy and clean technologies. The UAE can also encourage the growth of venture capital funds and incubator programs dedicated to climate technologies. These initiatives provide funding, mentorship, and support to startups and early-stage companies working on innovative climate solutions. Climate Innovation Exchange in Abu Dhabi, for example, hosts an annual global competition where startups pitch their climate-related innovations to potential investors.

COP 28 is expected to bring a more nuanced representation of the diverse understandings and priorities on climate change that lead to practical solutions to emission reductions and climatic adaptation. Although the summit’s dynamics are beyond the host country’s control, if the UAE masters the diplomatic skills to act as a neutral mediator, COP 28 represents an opportunity to achieve transformative outcomes on the path to a climate-safe world.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: UAE

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Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region. He is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consulting firm. He has an MA degree in Comparative and International Relations from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations (ASERI) from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy. He tweets at: @mazz_Leonardo. Dr. Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and Director of the International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research & Advisory, Dubai (UAE)


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