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Understanding the GCC’s Post-COP27 National Climate Change Commitments

For two consecutive years, the Arab world is hosting two climate change summits, Conference of the Parties (COP). COP27 took place in Egypt in November 2022, and COP28 will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2023. Before that, the Arab region hosted three other COPs: two in Morocco (COP7 in 2001 and COP22 in 2016) and one in Qatar (COP18 in 2012). However, with the possible exception of Morocco and the UAE, past Arab climate conference hosts have not played a significant role in promoting climate action across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The host countries established administrative institutions to deal with climate change, but, before the adoption of Paris Agreement in 2015, these measures have not translated into tangible climate action at the national level.

Before 2015, only one of the six GCC states—the UAE—had a consistent climate policy framework. Most green energy projects across the GCC states were created at the demonstration or research level, rather than as a practical alternative to hydrocarbons. As a result, the total installed capacity of renewable energy across the GCC totaled only 449 MW in 2016—several orders of magnitude below the region’s needs. Since then, however, the GCC’s renewable energy total installed capacity has increased nearly sevenfold, totaling 3,498 MW in 2021. The UAE alone accounts for more than 75 percent of this renewable energy capacity.

GCC States’ National Climate Strategies

Before the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and the eventual adoption of its Rulebook in 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow, the GCC states had few reasons to hasten their commitments to greener climate policies. However, after the emergence of recent economic and energy security challenges, the GCC states have taken strides to flesh out their climate change strategies. Along with newly developed institutional architecture conducive to mitigating the effects of climate change and adapting to an evolving environment, every GCC state has launched initiatives, regulations, and programs intended to address climate change and achieve the goals set in their national development strategies. All GCC countries, with the exception of Qatar, have pledged to achieve a net zero emissions target by or around mid-century, complemented with holistic national climate strategies.

In 2007, Bahrain established a Joint National Committee on Climate Change, chaired by the Supreme Council for Environment, to oversee climate issues. While useful, the committee’s climate action has been dominated by preparing and communicating reports to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Kuwait’s domestic climate action is overseen by the country’s Environment Public Authority. In addition to preparing reports for international climate organizations such as the UNFCCC, the body issued a National Adaptation Plan in 2019 aimed at reducing greenhouse gases through 2030.

In 2019, Oman promulgated the National Strategy for Adaptation and Mitigation to Climate Change 2020-2040. Ahead of COP27, the Omani government announced a commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Since 2020, Oman has announced several initiatives to support its low-carbon economic transition, including the establishment of the Oman Sustainability Centre that oversees the development and implementation of carbon neutrality strategy.

Qatar’s Council of Ministers approved the National Climate Change Plan in September 2021 to coordinate climate-conscious decisions across government sectors. A month later, Qatar created the Environment and Climate Change Ministry to address climate related issues.

Saudi Arabia has developed a holistic approach for climate mitigation at the national level—the so-called circular carbon economy (CCE) approach. The CCE was initially proposed during Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 nations in 2020 and was endorsed by all members of the bloc. It calls for managing greenhouse gas emissions using all available climate mitigation options, rather than advocating for one option over another. The CCE approach promotes the “three Rs” of the circular economy concept: reducing, reusing, and recycling carbon. It goes one step further, adding a novel fourth R—removing carbon from the atmosphere. Reducing calls for managing emissions at their source through greater energy efficiency and use of green energy resources. Reusing encourages carbon to be used as an input to create feedstocks and fuels, such as mobile carbon capture technology and CO2-enhanced oil recovery, which uses injected CO2 to extract oil that is otherwise not recoverable. Recycling carbon is achieved through the natural carbon cycle with bioenergy and through natural sinks such as forests and oceans and the use of hydrogen-based synthetic fuels to recycle CO2. Finally, removing deals with excess carbon by storing it through carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) methods.

The UAE was the first Gulf state to announce a national climate strategy in 2017; the National Climate Change Plan of the UAE 2017–2050. The UAE climate strategy was designed around three objectives: managing greenhouse gas emissions while sustaining economic growth, minimizing risks and improving the UAE’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and enhancing the UAE’s economic diversification agenda through innovative solutions. Regarding the latter objective, the UAE has been the first GCC state to link its climate strategy with its economic development plans, for which the UAE Green Agenda 2015–2030 was established as an overarching implementation framework in 2015. The UAE Council on Climate Change and Environment, established in 2016, is the committee responsible for both overseeing the implementation of the Green Agenda and advancing partnerships across ministries and local authorities with the private sector and academia.

Furthermore, as with their development of renewables, the GCC states have recently shown active involvement in hydrogen development. Since 2020, a flurry of hydrogen projects, strategies and initiatives have been announced across the region. The United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have been the most active in exploring the development and deployment of clean hydrogen.

The Role of Regional Initiatives

Regional climate cooperation has also gained momentum. Perhaps the most notable such pact is the Middle East Green Initiative, 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, a number of regional centers and programs were also announced to realize the Initiative’s goals. The Kingdom further announced a first-of-its-kind regional financial fund to invest in two regional initiatives. The first seeks to find clean fuel solutions for cooking, and the second advocates for the establishment of a Regional Investment Fund for Circular Carbon Economy (CCE) technology solutions. The financial fund has already garnered 39 billion Saudi Riyal ($10.3 billion) to support these initiatives.

The GCC states have also joined a number of international climate-related initiatives. The Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, established in 2005,  aims to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of CCUS technology. The Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation; and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative are a voluntary group of CEOs who represent 30% of global oil and gas production and collaborate to find climate solutions for oil producing countries. In April 2021, Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined four other countries in establishing the Net Zero Producers Forum, which brings together Canada, Norway, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—collectively representing 40 percent of global oil and gas production. Furthermore, all the GCC states are participants in the Global Methane Pledge, which seeks to collectively reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, relative to 2020 levels.

COP27 and COP28 are expected to result in a regional push for climate action. Hosting a COP invariably puts pressure on the host country to showcase its own commitment to combating climate change, thereby setting an example for others. Indeed, the UAE, ahead of hosting COP28, updated its second national climate plan, with an upgraded greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 31% by 2030. Moreover, the first global stocktake—a mechanism to measure countries’ progress in achieving their climate commitments—will begin in 2023, pushing countries to pursue ambitious climate commitments and adhere to current pledges, given the requirement of Paris Agreement for countries to conduct regular and transparent reporting of information on the implementation and achievement of their national climate targets.

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

Dr. Aisha Al-Sarihi is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. Dr. Al-Sarihi’s areas of research expertise and interest include clean energy policy and climate economics, policies and governance, with a focus on the Arab region.

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