The United Arab Emirates, with its region-wide reputation as a first mover on climate action, was first to sign and ratify the Paris Agreement (2015), the first country in the Gulf to commit to an economy-wide reduction in emissions by 2030 and, in an announcement made last month, the first to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. With such a track record it is no surprise the Gulf state has put forward its bid to host COP28.
The UAE’s announcements come ahead of COP26 (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), taking place in Glasgow this week where the host country, the United Kingdom, receives an estimated 120 world leaders to discuss climate change solutions to prevent a global temperature rise of above 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
As a major oil and gas producer whose fossil fuel exports make up 30% of national gross domestic product, the statement of intent by the Arab nation is nothing short of remarkable, demonstrating both the UAE’s long-standing recognition of the opportunities that climate action presents and proving that climate ambition can come from all corners of the world.
John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, visited the UAE a number of times this year, deeming the UAE a “strong contender” in their bid to host COP28 in 2023 having reportedly been “impressed by the ingenuity being applied to food and climate challenges” during his trip. The US and the UAE launched the Agricultural Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate initiative with endorsement from the UK’s COP26 Presidency and support from 30 countries, pitting the UAE front and center of increased investment in agricultural innovation for climate action by 2025. With its National Food Security Strategy, the UAE is a few years ahead, having already invested in R&D in modern agricultural technology and dedicated an entire Ministry to the matter.
The UAE’s commitment to multilateralism for climate is further exemplified by being the first country in its region to endorse the global goal of protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030 and pledging to plant 30 million mangroves by 2030 to protect coastal areas against erosion and rising sea levels while providing habitat for endangered species. And this is no accident; the founding father of the nation, Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan, was a keen conservationist who believed in preserving the nation’s natural riches as much as exploiting its hydrocarbon wealth.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in the same vein, recently declared that to reach the target set to achieving net zero by 2050, “all institutions will work together”. As Minister of Climate and Environment H.E. Mariam Almheiri also explains, the Net Zero by 2050 Strategic Initiative “was based on a whole-of-government accelerator program”. This holistic approach to climate action is one to be emulated.
Believing in the opportunities of climate action and desire to diversify its sources of income can be seen in the Emirates’ international and domestic energy investments and its attractiveness as a destination for foreign investment in renewables.
The energy transition is a journey the UAE embarked upon some fifteen years ago, when “initial investments in the renewable space” began, according to H.E. Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and UAE Special Envoy for Climate. Today, the UAE boasts renewable investments to the tune of US$17 billion in over 70 countries, from the United States to Uzbekistan, including in innovative renewable technologies such as the world’s first commercial-scale floating wind farm in the UK. In March this year, the UAE entered into a multibillion-pound investment partnership with the UK, earmarked for technology, clean energy and infrastructure, reaffirming a long-standing relationship between both countries positioning themselves for first-mover advantages.
Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s most recognized sovereign wealth fund (and estimated to be the world’s third largest, renowned for sizeable investments at home and abroad), is said to have agreed to invest nearly $7bn until 2026 in British ventures in the three selected sectors, including a focus on energy transition.
In August, the UAE sold its third shipment of blue ammonia to Japan in another step towards building a hydrogen industry and further preparing for the energy transition. A month later, UAE clean energy company Masdar and ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), agreed upon a hydrogen production partnership with BP to develop low carbon hydrogen hubs with an initial aim to produce 2 gigawatts of low carbon hydrogen in the UK and the UAE, consolidating BP’s century-old partnership with its Middle Eastern counterpart.
At home, the UAE country hosts some of the largest solar plants producing some of the lowest-cost solar power in the world between Noor Abu Dhabi outside Abu Dhabi operated by TAQA or the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park outside Dubai that powers the Dubai Electricity and Water Company (DEWA). Solar energy is now the cheapest daytime power source in the Middle East, enabling industries and businesses to save money and reduce their emissions.
Renewables are not the only means through which the UAE is cutting emissions from its energy production. Nuclear will also play a role in the UAE’s energy mix. It is the first country in the Middle East to operate zero carbon nuclear power and is targeting 14GW in combined nuclear and renewable capacity by 2030. In addition, in the run up to Cop 26 Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) announced it would soon source up to 100% of its grid power from nuclear.
Global understanding is that capturing emissions will be a key part of the solution. ADNOC operates one of the world’s few large-scale and commercially viable carbon capture and storage systems. It plans to expand its capacity fivefold by capturing CO2 from its own gas plants, with the aim of reaching 5 million tons of CO2 every year by 2030.
In an effort to reach net zero emissions through economy-wide transformation including heavy industries, the Emirates Global Aluminium company (EGA) signed a deal to supply BMW with the first 100% “solar-made” aluminum earlier this year and launched the first solar-powered green hydrogen facility anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
As well as being central to its national economic strategy, climate action is also a core part of the UAE’s foreign policy.
Providing development assistance of over US$1bn in grants and low interest loans to fund green projects in those countries where the need is greatest, the country has provided billions of dollars in humanitarian relief for climate disasters.
As the United Arab Emirates prepare to celebrate their 50th anniversary as a nation in almost exactly a month’s time, humanitarian aid is another inherited legacy. The late Sheikh Zayed once remarked: “The oil business is like a lottery, I might still be poor and my neighbors rich, so we ought to help each other.” He knew better than most that the country should prepare for a time beyond their oil wealth and support foreign and domestic economic growth through international cooperation and partnership.
Using its position at the heart of the global hydrocarbon industry, the UAE intends to demonstrate what form climate action could take among major oil and gas producing countries. Progressive, tech savvy, and determined to be future-ready, the financial weight of the UAE’s political will to invest in the required change is second to none. Its track record of supporting multilateralism and hosting large international events such as Expo 2020 Dubai, with the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” and the country’s display of diplomatic prowess, makes the United Arab Emirates an example of how far countries can come in 50 years, well placed to lead the way in climate action for the crucial next 50.