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The COP28 Climate Odyssey: Charting the Course for Gulf Countries

COP28 opened in Dubai amid global calls for greater ambition and accelerated action to address the escalating climate crisis. With COP27 in Egypt and now COP28 in UAE, the Middle East has played host to its second straight U.N. climate conference. The eyes of the world have turned toward the region, with countries big and small hoping to agree on new ways to keep global warming 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. The conference convened thousands of attendees from 198 countries, raising questions about the extent to which oil-rich countries, such as hosts the United Arab Emirates, are willing to contribute to resolving the climate crisis, which is primarily driven by fossil fuels. The juxtaposition of global environmental concerns and national interests underscores the complex challenges facing those who seek urgent climate action.

For the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the significance of these COP meetings cannot be overstated. Representatives at the United Nations COP28 climate discussions in Dubai have reached a consensus on an agreement. This pact, for the first time, aims to encourage countries to shift from fossil fuels to prevent the most severe impacts of climate change. The outcomes agreed upon at the conference will have a major economic, environmental, and geopolitical impact on the Gulf states’ futures, and COP28 could play a decisive role in the evolution of GCC policy.

Leveraging COP28 for Regional Resilience

The GCC nations face heightened susceptibility to climate change detrimental impacts, which manifest in various forms including escalating temperatures, diminishing water resources, and severe weather occurrences such as sandstorms. The repercussions of these climate-induced challenges pose substantial threats to the economic stability, public health, and overall living conditions across the Gulf region. Consequently, these pressing issues have propelled the Gulf states to join forces in environmental initiatives aimed at mitigating the effects of droughts, sandstorms, and other environmental issues stemming from climate change.

COP28 meetings allow these nations to engage in meaningful dialogues regarding adaptation and mitigation strategies. Sharing experiences and best practices with other nations is a crucial lifeline for GCC nations as they develop robust plans to address climate change’s immediate and long-term impacts on their ecosystems, economies, and societies. Mitigation efforts may include investments in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture practices, and resilient infrastructure development. For Example, The Gulf countries have embarked on renewable energy development, the scale of and investment in renewable technologies has increased rapidly over the last two decades, with the total renewable energy installed capacity increasing from 17 megawatts in 2011 to 5,131 MW in 2022. Four Gulf countries have set new or enhanced their GHG emissions reduction targets. With the Third Updated of the Second NDC submission in July 2023, the UAE set an absolute GHG emission reduction target of 19 percent below 2019 levels by 2030. In 2021, Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined four other countries in establishing the Net Zero Producers Forum. Furthermore, all the GCC countries participated in the Global Methane Pledge, which seeks to collectively reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, relative to 2020.

Gulf countries should leverage COP28 as an opportunity to foster regional collaboration. Discussions focused on sharing knowledge, expertise, and resources to collectively address shared environmental challenges. Collaborative initiatives aimed at developing regional frameworks for climate action were explored to amplify the impact of individual efforts. The Regional climate cooperation of which the most notable is the Middle East Green Initiative (MGI), which aims to plant 40 billion trees across the region and reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent with the help of clean hydrocarbon technologies. Led by Saudi Arabia, several regional centers and programs were also announced to realize the initiative’s goals.

As the global community grapples with the shared challenge of climate change, COP28 meetings offer GCC countries a platform for international cooperation and diplomacy. These nations can forge alliances, share technological advancements, and negotiate agreements that foster collaborative efforts in the fight against climate change. Conversely, a failure to strike compromise at COP28 could cause a significant diplomatic rift between the GCC’s major hydrocarbon exporters like Saudi Arabia, Qatar , UAE and Kuwait and the international community who have called for fossil fuel phase out as part of the COP28 outcomes. Nonetheless, active participation in COP meetings enhances the diplomatic standing of GCC countries. This was evident when COP28 reached a first-ever deal to move away from fossil fuels. This is first time in 3 decades of COP’s, a fossil fuel phase out has made it to final text. The nearly 200 nations that gathered in Dubai finalized on the issue of fossil fuels in the hope of reaching a consensus.

Balancing Economic Opportunities and COP28 Goals

As things currently stand, the world is lagging far behind its climate goals. A report recently published by UN Climate Change shows that national climate action plans (known as nationally determined contributions, or ‘NDCs’) would collectively lower greenhouse gas emissions to 2% below 2019 levels by 2030, while the science is clear that a 43% reduction is needed. This global disparity must act as a catalyst for greater ambition in meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals, as nations prepare to submit revised national climate action plans by 2025. The Paris Agreement lays out actions on how to accelerate emission cuts, strengthen resilience to climate impacts, and provide the support and finance needed for the transformation.

Dr. Sultan al-Jaber, the head of the Emirati state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and COP28 President, has come under intense scrutiny for his country’s apparent conflict of interest. On the one hand, the UAE through ADNOC remains one of the world’s major producers of hydrocarbons. On the other hand, many Emirati leaders have called for a transition to renewable energy sources. Many activists and members of civil society organizations want to know if oil-rich Gulf states will pony up more money to help developing countries adapt to climate change and adopt green technologies.

The vast wealth derived from oil and gas reserves forms the core of most GCC economies. COP28 meetings catalyze discussions on the imperative of a global energy transition, nudging consumers and producers to diversify their economies away from fossil fuels. The global shift towards sustainable and renewable energy has caused the GCC states to reevaluate their traditional economic model and invest in alternative energy sources and clean technologies. The economic implications of these efforts are profound, requiring strategic planning and long-term vision to ensure sustained prosperity. Despite commendable efforts, the GCC states continue to face headwinds. Balancing economic priorities with environmental commitments and ensuring a just transition for affected communities remained significant challenges. The complexities of geopolitical dynamics also influenced the region’s ability to navigate climate negotiations effectively.

Recognizing the finite nature of fossil fuels and the urgent need for sustainability, GCC countries are compelled to explore economic diversification strategies. COP meetings facilitate discussions on innovative technologies and sustainable practices, encouraging these nations to invest in renewable energy, green infrastructure, and technology-driven solutions. Pursuing transformative economic diversification strategies may ensure long-term resilience and position GCC countries at the forefront of the global transition to a more sustainable and environmentally conscious economic model.

One of the critical missions assigned to policymakers at COP28 is to flesh out the global climate finance regime, including the establishment of loss and damage funds and the bankrolling of new projects. The latter operate similar to familiar international development schemes whereby developed nations pledge financial assistance to developing countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation projects. Despite their affluence, GCC countries may face unique challenges in implementing large-scale sustainable initiatives.

These challenges encompass a broad spectrum of economic, social, environmental, and technological dimensions, deeply interwoven with the distinctive geopolitical and cultural landscape of the region. The economies of the GCC are predominantly dependent on revenues from oil and gas, a factor that has historically impeded efforts toward economic diversification. The fluctuating prices of oil present a considerable threat to fiscal stability, as evidenced by the necessity for fiscal reforms such as the introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) and other taxation strategies. Although there is a widespread acknowledgment of the urgency to shift towards a post-oil economic model, tangible progress in this direction has been modest. Consequently, the region’s economies continue to be susceptible to the ebb and flow of the global energy market, underscoring the need for more robust and diversified economic strategies.  COP28 meetings allow these nations to seek financial support and technical assistance, fostering a collaborative approach to addressing climate change on a global scale.

As Annex II countries, COP28 also allows the GCC states to seek financial and technological support to advance their climate transition. Annex II countries, as defined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are a group of Asian states that have special access to financial and technological transfers from rich, largely Western countries to assist with climate mitigation projects. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, despite their wealth from oil and gas revenues, face severe climate consequences and thus have unique reasons for needing climate finance. Access to climate finance can significantly accelerate the implementation of environmentally sustainable projects in GCC countries, whose large sovereign wealth funds can act as a further catalyst for climate investment.

The outcomes of COP28 stand poised to shape the narrative of climate action for countries globally and for GCC countries. From economic diversification to climate change adaptation, international cooperation, and technological innovation, the potential impacts of COP28 are far-reaching. As the global community grapples with the urgency of a looming climate disaster, the active engagement of GCC countries in COP28 signifies their commitment to steering toward a sustainable future. The evolving outcomes of COP28 will influence the immediate response of GCC nations to climate change challenges and determine their long-term positioning as critical players in the global endeavor for environmental leadership. As the outcomes of COP28 unfold, the GCC countries find themselves at a pivotal juncture, navigating the future with a delicate balance between economic growth and ecological responsibility. As climate change remains a pressing issue, the world will closely monitor the post-COP28 landscape to assess progress toward a more sustainable and resilient future.

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: GCC

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Neeshad Shafi is an Environmentalist, and policy-oriented social change advocate, best known for his work on social movements, climate, and environmental policies in the Middle East. He holds a master’s degree in Energy and Environmental Engineering and based in Doha, Qatar. He was named in the Apolitical’s List of the 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy in 2019 and 2022 respectively and was awarded ‘Middle East’s Most Creative People in Business 2023 – Saving the Planet’ Category by Fast Company.


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