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Navigating Shades of Green: The UAE’s Environmental Strategy Amid COP28 Criticism

The United Arab Emirates is hosting COP28 from November 30 to December 12. Some NGOs and media outlets have described Abu Dhabi’s sponsorship of the conference as a pernicious way to promote its soft power and environmental credentials without concrete action to address climate change—a phenomenon described as “greenwashing.” The decision of one of the world’s largest exporters of oil to host a climate conference invites cynicism. However, the UAE’s imperfections form only part of a larger picture. The country has taken strong steps to improve its record. Despite its shortcomings, it is form of an environmental colonialism to systematically portray Abu Dhabi as a climate villain.

An Energy Transition Pioneer

The story of the UAE’s relationship to its natural resources, and its perceived lack of concern for climate change, most often ends there, though it should not. In order to better understand the UAE’s long-term economic plans, it is important to more deeply consider its words—and its actions—in the green energy space. While the UAE may easily decline to participate in climate change mitigation initiatives, it has taken a leading role in doing so. In fact, its stances on climate change dovetail with those of Western nations. It hosts the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a UN observer agency, in Abu Dhabi; and in 2006, it established its own Ministry for Climate Change, making it one of the first and only nations in the world to do so.

The UAE’s National Energy Strategy 2050 commits the country to sourcing 50% of its energy from clean sources by 2050, eliminating 70% of its carbon emissions in the process. So far, and to name a few of the leading initiatives, Emirati policymakers have invested more than $40 billion in clean energy technologies, and have announced plans to provide 100 million people in Africa with clean electricity by 2035, helping to offset the carbon emissions produced by Emirati oil exports. While COP28 is undoubtedly an opportunity for the UAE to showcase these ‘green’ credentials, the nation will also bear the weight of increased scrutiny. Any failure to meet its commitments will come at high costs in terms of Abu Dhabi’s influence on the world stage.

On a more abstract level, the demand that the UAE sever its main source of revenue—thereby requiring a fundamental renegotiation of its governing social contract— cannot be considered realistic. For this reason, a more nuanced approach to the UAE’s climate change strategy is needed. While Sultan Al Jaber’s role as CEO of ADNOC is well-known, his work as chairman of Masdar Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is working to create what it describes as the world’s most sustainable city, has largely remained absent from the headlines. This project stems from the recognition that oil companies, given their size, influence, and technical expertise, ought to be included in the conversation about the clean energy transition. Although Masdar remains an exception to the UAE’s existing climate change record, it should nonetheless be recognized as an attractive site for investors that may stimulate future innovation in the green energy space.

Warranted Concerns

It is undeniable that the United Arab Emirates was built on wealth derived from hydrocarbons—one of the greatest contributors to global climate change. While the UAE has far surpassed its Gulf neighbors in economic diversification, oil and gas exports continue to generate billions for the government, creating an incentive for the country to continue its oil production unabated by climate concerns. International skepticism surrounding the UAE’s sincerity in hosting COP28 rose to a fever pitch when it appointed Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as president of the conference. Mr. Al Jaber has undertaken expansion of ADNOC’s oil production from three million barrels per day in 2016 to a projected five million by 2030. ADNOC also agreed a $20.7 billion deal with foreign institutional investors to enhance the company’s oil pipeline systems in 2020.

Perhaps most damningly, leaked briefing documents from COP28 reportedly indicated that Emirati officials planned to strike hydrocarbon deals with attending countries—a charge that UAE representatives have not explicitly denied. These moves have provoked questions about Mr. Al Jaber and ADNOC’s long-term commitment to emission cuts. Other critics of the UAE’s COP28 leadership stress the strong link between climate justice and human rights, two areas in which the UAE lags behind. To address these concerns, Abu Dhabi could commit to domestic reforms and continue to increase its strategic investments in green technologies and renewable energy resources.

However, the UAE’s relationship to its hydrocarbon resources is structural in nature, and vital for national stability—at least for the time being. The UAE is no different than many of its GCC counterparts, in that the nation’s social contract fundamentally relies on oil export rents to fund generous social welfare programs for citizens and residents. Indeed, the UAE’s oil and gas export revenues contributed to 15.7% of its GDP growth in 2019, and medium-term analyses forecast similar figures. These economic trends cast doubt on Abu Dhabi’s stated ambitions of diversifying its economic base and transitioning to a clean energy future.

The Moral Landscape of Global Energy Politics

The moral taint of oil money in contemporary debates rests on the perception among some (primarily Western) commentators that “oil money” and “petrostates” are inherently morally bankrupt, while lesser hydrocarbon exporting states are more virtuous. This is, however, a false dichotomy; oil exporters cannot be divided into such reductive categories of “good” or “bad” actors. The United States is the world’s largest producer of oil, but given that most of the consumption is domestic, it is able to somewhat escape such etiquette and such high levels of scrutiny.

The war in Ukraine has severely disrupted global oil flows and served to highlight the dependency of many EU states on hydrocarbon imports. The EU dramatically increased oil and gas imports from Azerbaijan in the months following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in spite of criticisms about Azerbaijan’s human rights record and its invasion of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. These trends would seem to highlight that moral considerations come secondary to any state’s obligations to ensure security and stability for its people.

A historical and global contextualization of energy flows suggest that accusations of greenwashing amount to a form of environmental colonialism that reinforces the unequal exploitation and use of the Earth’s resources. Over the last two centuries, anthropogenic climate change has largely been the result of emissions from Western countries; opprobrium against the developing world is thus little more than an attempt to shift blame in a scenario in which all parties need to be held accountable.

Ultimately, accusations of bad faith, regardless of motivation, hinder public understanding of the issues at stake in the fight against climate change. Before accusing the UAE of greenwashing, the United States and the European Union ought to revisit their own histories and better acknowledge the interconnectedness of hydrocarbon supply and demand and their major role in both. The UAE is one of the countries where global warming will have one of the most immediate economic and geographic impacts. Therefore, it is more likely that Abu Dhabi will play an entrepreneurial and leading role in addressing global warming compared to Washington or Brussels.

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: Energy & Environment
Country: UAE

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Alexander White earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE) before joining the Arab Studies graduate program at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service (SFS). Alex has interned at the United Nations with the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change and was a party delegate at COP26 in Glasgow and COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh. More recently, Alex was a research intern at CSIS Indonesia in Jakarta where he focused on information disorder in presidential elections, radicalisation patterns of pro-IS actors and political violence in West Papua. At the SFS, his research focuses on geopolitics of the middle east, climate change and national development strategies on the peninsula.


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