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Climate Action in the UAE and Saudi Arabia: Pragmatism or Greenwashing?

The past years have witnessed the growing impact of climate change around the world. These events have coincided with a growing acceptance that human societies must act to address climate change now if the world seeks to avoid dramatic future consequences. Decarbonizing the world economy is widely recognized as a key factor towards climate change mitigation. However, because the global economy remains dependent on fossil fuels, such a task is proving to be increasingly difficult and multi-faceted. This double-edged dilemma is particularly evident among the GCC states, which are both heavily dependent on fossil fuel revenues and acutely aware of the negative effects of climate change.

Among the GCC states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) stand out as the two states most eager to deal with climate change. Nonetheless, addressing environmental externalities comes at a hefty price for fossil fuel-dependent states, especially if it means reducing their nations’ oil and gas production. The Paris Agreement, to which all GCC states are signatories, calls for all states to drastically reduce their fossil fuel consumption in the near term. However, as both countries have made clear in recent months, taking national climate action does not necessarily mean stopping fossil fuel production. Instead, the UAE and KSA are rapidly expanding their respective climate change initiatives, while aggressively increasing their fossil fuel production.

Conflicting Policies and Narratives

It is clear that all the Gulf states’ economies are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. All six of the GCC nations fall within the top eight countries with the largest CO2 emissions per capita globally. At the same time, climate change poses significant threats to the Gulf countries. Increasing heat waves in already extremely hot climates, biodiversity loss, and other climate change impacts leave the GCC states at risk of high-water stress, a problem that will only deepen as the climate crisis continues. Therefore, tackling the issue of climate change is a necessary measure for the Arab monarchies, while at the same time jeopardizing the main driver of their economic growth.

The UAE has made a significant attempt to portray itself as the most proactive country on climate action within the Gulf. Within the GCC states, the UAE was the first country to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the first to announce absolute emission cuts, and was one of the first Gulf states to establish a climate ministry. Abu Dhabi serves as the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and Dubai will host the 28th annual “Conference of Parties” climate conference (COP28) in 2023. Aside from climate change commitments and diplomacy efforts, the UAE has taken significant actionable steps towards achieving net zero emissions. Emirati policymakers have invested upwards of $40 billion in clean energy, with solar power expected to reach 20 GW in installed capacity by 2030. Abu Dhabi aims to provide 100 million people in Africa with clean electricity by 2035, signed an agreement to develop one of the world’s largest onshore wind energy projects in Egypt, and has partnered with the United States to mobilize $100 billion in investments to develop 100 GW of clean energy globally by 2035.

However, while the UAE has made significant strides towards climate action and situated itself as a climate leader within the Gulf, it has not forgotten the resource that makes up the backbone of its economy. A few weeks after revealing its most recent clean energy initiatives during COP27, the UAE also brought forward its plans to increase its oil production faster than previously planned, with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) planning to increase its production capacity from 3.5 million barrels per day to five million barrels by 2027.

While the UAE will host COP28 in 2023, thrusting the country into the climate diplomacy spotlight, Saudi Arabia has not been far behind in showcasing its climate change initiatives. The Kingdom has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060, Saudi Aramco to be carbon neutral by 2050, plant 600 million trees and protect 30% of the country’s land and sea by 2030, and has a target to plant a total of 10 billion trees. During COP27, Saudi leaders promised to allocate $2.5 billion to support the Middle East Green Initiative and presented a total of 66 initiatives to address climate change.

Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s goal to become more environmentally friendly does not ignore the underpinning factor of the country’s wealth. Riyadh plans to expand its current oil production capacity by more than one million barrels per day by 2027. At the same time, Riyadh is pushing hard to block international agreements to reduce oil consumption. Instead, it has focused on developing and deploying carbon capture and storage technologies that remain unproven on a commercial scale.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE aim to expand their respective climate change initiatives while significantly increasing fossil fuel production in the near term, even as climate change scientists and leading institutions have repeatedly called for states to drastically cut their emissions. This simple reality generates skepticism about the countries’ commitment to a truly post-oil world. Both nations claim that they are taking a pragmatic approach to climate change, taking action where they can without jeopardizing their economies. Critics, however, accuse them of greenwashing—showcasing climate change efforts at home while gambling that other countries will fail to reach their own decarbonization goals.

A Climate Catch-22

Decarbonizing the world’s energy system is necessary if states are serious about achieving climate change mitigation goals. However, asking countries that depend on fossil fuel revenue to do so is difficult. Asking the Gulf states to surrender their main source of revenue and their economic foundation is not a realistic request. The approach the UAE and Saudi Arabia have taken on climate action in the past months and years is a mix between optimism and pragmatism. On one hand, the countries portray themselves as climate leaders with significant climate initiatives, events and lobbying activities focusing on touting their climate change mitigation strategies. On the other hand, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh still aim to increase their respective fossil fuel production, betting on the need for more hydrocarbon resources in the future. Though the world must begin cutting its fossil fuel consumption by 6% per annum to reach the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement, Emirati and Saudi actions suggest a belief that the rest of the world will find this transition more difficult to implement than their commitments suggest.

Whether the Saudi and Emirati approach is pragmatic or purely “greenwashing” is hard to determine. It is clearly in both states’ best interest to limit climate change and reach the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. Simultaneously, significantly reducing their fossil fuel production and sales during a time when major countries such as Germany and the United States are begging the Gulf to supply them with more oil and gas makes little economic sense. Nonetheless, with the UAE hosting COP28 in 2023, more scrutiny will be placed on the GCC states’ inconsistent climate change policies, leaving less room for states to evade their commitments.

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

Ian Granit is a MSc graduate from Lund University in International Development and Management and a social consultant at RSK’s International Projects Group, working with the social side of environmental and energy projects in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. His research interests include the GCC states, Latin America, and the social, political, and economic impacts of water, energy, and food security.

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